Before we get too excited, it is important to remember that product placement is nothing new. It has been in the movies and US television for years. Just look at each time James Bond is given an Aston Martin or BMW to drive around in. Or the way Back to the Future embraced Pepsi, Bank of America, DeLorean, Texaco and Toyota to name just a few. Then of course there were the off-putting blurry Coca Cola-branded cups in front of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on American Idol.
But British broadcasting had remained a closed shop until earlier this year when Ofcom relaxed the rules, giving broadcasters the opportunity to feature branded items in a non-advertising context as long as it was “editorially justifiable”.
ITV’s This Morning was quick on the uptake, swiftly signing a deal with Nestlé to feature its Dolce Gusto coffee machine in what was rumoured to be for three months and worth a tidy six figures.
Fast forward to less than a week ago and arguably the most high profile deal to date featured Coronation Street, whose first product placement deal was signed with the Nationwide Building Society. From next month, the soap will get its first branded cash machine.
Nevertheless, it is hardly the wave of brands popping up our screens that had been predicted by some when the new rules kicked in.
Is this catalyst the British TV industry has been waiting for, or will product placement remain a slow burner for some time?
One ITV executive told Boom! that so far it’s been a case of “old habits die hard” as broadcasters become more familiar with the concept.
“The slow start may also have something to do with unfamiliarity with the new rules and broadcasters not wanting to fall foul of products still on the forbidden list,” he said. “Junk food, alcoholic drinks, tobacco and fat or sugar-laden foods are still not allowed, of course.”
Some analysts estimated that the UK product placement market could be worth up to £100m annually – in just a few years – if based on the US model. However, Ofcom was more circumspect with its prediction of £25m-£30m annually.
Still, it must be argued that, aesthetically, drinking a pint of Guinness is far less embarrassing for the viewer than watching Phil in EastEnders class saying: “A pint please, Kat.” A pint of what exactly? You wouldn’t get away with saying that in a normal pub. If you did have a regular tipple, then wouldn’t you just ask for “the usual”?