U.K. Lifts Product Placement Ban

In the 1950s, an actor welcomed audiences to a program with "Good Evening, I am Ronald Reagan, speaking for General Electric." A half-century later, Coke branding became a staple of "American Idol." 

But throughout that span, the United Kingdom held firm against any form of paid brand integration or product placement on its airwaves. That was even after other European countries allowed it.

But after a mandate from the European Union, the U.K. lifted the prohibition last week, a major shift in a country that still wants to believe TV is a sort of public trust. And Nescafe slotted a coffee maker in the background of a cooking segment on a morning show.

Still, that is not to say Ofcom (the British version of the FCC) is allowing networks and marketers to work together to place products at will. Significant restrictions apply - strict enough that if the FCC or Congress tried to enact them here, ad industry lobbyists would go into Defcon 1 mode. The marketers and networks that pay them might pull all funding if they failed in halting implementation.



Fox, for one, would be heavily affected. Under the U.K. program, Coke cups would still not be allowed in front of "Idol" judges. Simon Cowell's massive deal to make Pepsi semi-ubiquitous on "The X Factor" this fall would be prohibited.

On ESPN, Diageo would have to yank its sponsorship of the popular "Pardon the Interruption," while Coors cans could not show up on a "Survivor" island on CBS. Anheuser-Busch would be out of the product-placement game.

Kraft, too, might be with its Oreos brand. Famously in 2006, the cookies played a role in the storyline on WB's "7th Heaven," where one character proposed by putting a ring in between the cream fillings.

The new U.K. rules ban the paid integrations of food and drink products that are deemed high in sugar, fat and salt. Same goes for alcoholic drinks.

The "7th Heaven"-Oreos initiative might be banned for another reason beyond ingredients. Some considered the placement to be the height of crass commercialism and product placement abuse. In the U.K., regulations have it that "the content of programs shouldn't seem to be created or distorted, just to feature the placed products."

The FCC has shown some interest in regulating product placement, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside.

The U.K. is allowing product placement in shows that produced in the U.K. and air on commercial networks. The BBC is still on the sidelines in cash-for-placement. Shows made in America and re-broadcast in the U.K., which feature brand integrations, are not impacted by the new regulations.

When a show includes a paid product placement, the marketers and network involved are subject to a sort of "Scarlet Letter." Whenever an integration appears in a show at all - even for two seconds - a "P" symbol must appear in the bottom right of the screen. That's at the beginning and end, and after each ad break.

Each time the "P" appears, it must stay for three seconds. The "P" does not clue a viewer in about any particular product or tactic, just that there is some pay-for-play going on.

And that vagueness is where the U.K.'s apparent wishy-washiness on product placement comes to the fore. There is no question that it has been dragged into allowing the marketing technique. In 2008, then-culture minister Andy Burnham said there are "some lines that we should not cross -- one of which is that you can buy the space between the programs on commercial channels, but not the space within them."   

Now, his successor Ben Bradshaw was quoted as saying that product placement dollars are necessary to keep the U.K. production business competitive, "at a time when this crucial part of our creative industries needs all the support we can give it."

Yet, British policy-makers feel a need to "protect audiences from surreptitious advertising" and make them aware that commercial interests are involved in programming in a way that may not be evident. But they are doing so in a way that lacks teeth.

Forget about having a "P" appear during a show with paid placements at the same intervals each time. Make it so the letter hits the screen exactly when the paid placement is appearing.

Otherwise, U.K. policy-makers are not engaging in the kind of transparency that they want marketers and networks to pursue.

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