Ian West

Product placement is here to stay, so we'd better get used to it

Product placement can be annoying but advertising is a necessary evil of our favourite shows.

NETFLIX’S HOUSE OF CARDS is one of the worst offenders in the brand bombardment lark right now. The political drama is strewn with cameos from Coca Cola, Dell, Chevrolet and BlackBerry. In one scene Kevin Spacey’s character picks up Sony’s latest gaming device and asks, “Is that a PS Vita? I ought to get one of these for the car.” The Los Angeles Times has called the show “House of Product Placement.”

Product placement is here in Ireland too. Rate cards and brochures from RTÉ and TV3’s advertising sales departments obtained by the Sunday Independent show how brands are being offered spots on television chat shows to promote their products or services. The various package deals available range in price from €1,000 to €15,000 per appearance.

What are the rules for product placement?

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s General Commercial Communications Code remains fairly vague, although it was forced to rewrite its rule book after recognition at EU level in 2007 that TV advertising had changed utterly. This revision allows unpaid product in “limited circumstances” in which there is no actual payment in exchange for the product or service being provided.

While paid product placement is permitted in televised films, sport, drama and serials, it is forbidden on talk or chat shows “that regularly include such proportion of news and current affairs content as specified by the BAI.” So Sharon Ní Bheoláin won’t be sipping Nescafé just yet. According to the code, programmes containing product placement must ensure that “their content shall in no circumstances be influenced in such a way as to affect the responsibility and editorial independence of the broadcaster and the placement therein shall be editorially justified.”

Product placement in Ireland

The television we watch has always delivered us up to a group of advertisers as a pre-packaged demographic and product placement has always been on Irish screens through imported American shows.

TV3 had the first product placement breakthrough here with the branded Kenco mugs on its Midday programme in 2011. RTÉ later made a €900,000 deal to feature a Spar in Fair City. The deal meant that Christy Phelan’s corner shop was rebranded as a Spar and was the first paid product-placement deal of its size on an Irish drama. It works on Fair City. Viewers are told before each episode that the soap contains product placement and its inclusion hasn’t overwhelmed the soap.

Television and advertising have always co-existed quite happily. From James Bond’s car to Tom Cruise’s sunglasses, advertisers have been steadily increasing product placement. The relaxing of the rules was intended to help cash-strapped commercial broadcasters in attracting revenue.

The way we consume media has changed. Mass media is becoming more and more fragmented and family television viewing, when everybody sat down together on the sofa and faithfully concentrated on the shows and ad breaks is dead.

How many of us actually allow the commercials to play?

In fact, I find it difficult to remember the last time that I watched a show without having my laptop perched open on my knees and an iPhone in my hand as I check my Twitter feed. Digital video recorders mean viewers now watch their shows when they want, not when the TV scheduler decides. How many of us, when viewing a programme we recorded, actually allow the commercials to play during the breaks?

According to research, almost 90% of households with digital recording use it to skip through any ad breaks. Since more and more of us are recording shows, watching them days after they were first broadcast, and passing over the ads, advertisers are left feeling very anxious.

There’s also the issue of young consumers who have grown up with the heavy sell in our world of dizzy consumerism that they’ve become immune to it. Research in the United States suggests that a teenager is exposed to as many as 3,000 television ads in a single day. That’s a lot of commercials, and so they can eventually become white noise, barely perceptible to the viewer who has learned how to block them out. And if people aren’t responding to traditional adverts anymore, companies must look at different ways of advertising, like Google adwords, PR or product placement.

A necessary evil 

Advertising is a necessary evil since it’s advertising money that pays for the television shows in the first place. If we keep skipping over the ads, that revenue will start to dribble away. When broadcasters’ production budgets are shrinking by the day, any source of new investment must be considered. So television is left with only one option, to make the television programme do two things: entertain and advertise.

Ads will never die and marketing communications will forever chase consumers’ attention. But we will never be mindless sponges with no ability to make informed choices about what we watch, eat and buy. What we can do is sit back, relax and vote with our remote control if telly starts to become one big ad.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

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