FEATURE1 July 2011
FEATURE1 July 2011
Product placement is now allowed in British TV programmes. So how do we measure it? Robert Bain investigates.
Monday 28 February began like any other day on ITV’s flagship daytime show This Morning. Phil Vickery was cooking up some lamb in the kitchen, while Phillip Schofield and Ruth Langsford looked on and shared some friendly banter.
But viewers who were paying close attention might have noticed something new on the worktop behind Vickery – a coffee maker. And not just any coffee maker – a Nescafé Dolce Gusto coffee maker. Having paid for the machine to be there (reportedly £100,000 for a three-month deal), Nestlé became the first company to place a product on a British TV programme.
UK viewers are used to seeing paid-for product placement (or ‘brand integration’) in American TV shows and films, but before this year it was never allowed in programmes made for a UK audience. Media regulator Ofcom now allows companies to pay to get their products on screen – but programmes still can’t be seen to ‘promote’ products, they can’t be written into scripts, and certain types of products and programmes remain excluded.
The Labour government that changed the rules had previously been against the idea, but dropped its opposition under pressure from commercial broadcasters struggling with a severe advertising recession.
Other commercial broadcasters are not far behind – Sky’s sponsorship deal with hair care brand TRESemmé for the new series of Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model includes product placement, and New Look is to supply clothes for a new fashion show on Channel 4. Tool maker Kärcher and dog food brand Pedigree also have product placement deals with shows on Sky 1 and Discovery.
“The coffee maker in This Morning was an easy placement to start with because the show is filmed live. But many shows are filmed weeks or months in advance, and there can be no guarantee that a placed product will make the final cut”
According to PQ Media, the global market for product placement in all media was worth $6.25bn in 2009, with the US making up more than half of that. The European market was worth just $610m, but is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years as rules in the UK and other countries are relaxed. Clearly, someone has to measure and understand all this.
For Sarah Messer, head of commercial research at ITV, it’s new territory. She has been busy talking to prospective clients about product placement and how it will be measured, and ITV’s research and marketing teams have been visiting broadcasters and research providers in the US to benefit from their experience.
Messer expects to see the market grow gradually. She told Research: “Everywhere we go we get lots of interest and lots of questions and we can’t always answer all of them. I think we’ll have a lot more of those conversations before the floodgates open.”
ITV’s research on product placement will have two main elements: first measuring the amount of exposure given to brands and products in programmes, and secondly gauging the effectiveness.
The first part is to be handled by Repucom, which specialises in measuring sponsorship and branded TV content, using software that analyses video to pick out brands and products. Effectiveness research will be carried out by Nielsen IAG, whose panel of respondents keep an online diary of what they have watched on TV and answer questions about their engagement with programmes and ads.
IAG has been measuring product placement in the US since 2005, looking at 10,000 brands in 1,500 shows. Since last year it has also been asking UK viewers about placements in American shows on British TV in order to build a database of norms. It is due to start measuring ITV’s own placements this month.
Darren Moore, vice president of Nielsen IAG, said the reactions of UK viewers in its research have been very similar to those in the US. “People are already aware of product placement,” said Moore. “They know what is a placement and what isn’t, and people’s perception of US product placements is very positive in the UK. There’s very little backlash against it, from the research that we’ve done, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
However, the practical side of managing and measuring placements might prove more challenging. “One of the things that the initial research helped us to see was that this was going to be a really complicated world,” said Messer. “Who owns what area, who sells, who buys, who trades, who places… the questions are endless. Even getting hold of programme copy in enough time before it airs, prising it out of the commissioner’s hands to get it to a digital insertion company, to get it to Nielsen, to get it back again, was very difficult. That was something Nielsen understood long before we did, having had this set up for so long in the US – that even within ITV’s four walls it was going to be complicated.”
The coffee maker in This Morning was an easy placement to start with because the show is filmed live, so it’s easy enough to pop a product in the background. But many shows are filmed weeks or months in advance, and there can be no guarantee that a placed product will make the final cut. Messer said: “We’ve been very clear from the outset that when we make a deal with a brand, it’s incredibly hard for us to say at that point, over the course of three weeks it will get this number of seconds of exposure. It has been very hard for us to operate like that.”
Making it pay
As content partnership planner at ITV, Katherine Marlow has the job of putting together packages including product placement alongside other marketing opportunities like conventional advertising, licensing, sponsored online content and e-commerce tie-ins.
“What we knew upfront was that product placement on its own was not going to set the world alight,” Marlow told Research. “It’s about how you activate that, so licensing is absolutely key – to be able to say ‘as seen on Coronation Street’ or ‘as seen on The X Factor’.” Marlow says programme makers have generally been open to ideas. “When you mention there’s a revenue share, everyone’s very willing to try and help out,” she said.
For now, ITV is taking its cues from advertisers. “We are very restricted in terms of what can and cannot be done, so what we’re trying to do, rather than just scope out opportunities from the producer’s point of view, is work closely with the advertising community to briefs that they’re sending us, so we know who’s interested and can try to create a bespoke package for them,” she said.
IAG’s research is encouraging in this regard, showing that combinations of ads and placements deliver improvements in key metrics like brand recall, message recall and brand opinion.
Lessons from overseas
While the novelty of product placement may pose challenges for British broadcasters, it also presents opportunities.
Over in the US, Cary Meyers used to work in sponsorship at the NFL and now handles research at broadcaster NBC Universal. He says product placement has a lot in common with sponsorship – both are complicated and tricky to measure. As a result, there’s no single accepted metric that conveys the value of one placement in relation to another, or to the value of a standard 30-second spot.
“Maybe I’m spoilt because Nielsen is so basic in the way they measure television consumption – it’s such an easy concept to grasp,” said Meyers. “Product placement doesn’t lend itself to as neat a solution.”
“Currency metrics are the focus for advertisers, so placement measurement hasn’t been given a great deal of attention,” said Meyers. “I also don’t know if advertisers really have well thought-out plans and objectives for what their placement strategy is. I would love to know that for what a brand got out of a placement, it would have taken them buying two 30-second spots in a particular programme to accomplish the same. That for me would be the holy grail. I don’t know if that’s going to happen any time soon.
“Product placement has been around here for so long that people have taken it for granted, and I think the push for greater transparency and accountability metrics is something that is a relatively recent phenomenon. You guys in the UK, since it’s just starting now, you’re able to pay attention to it, whereas we’ve gone years and years without any real rigorous approach that’s industry agreed-upon for doing it.
“I think our priorities might be different from a research standpoint if we were just starting the practice now.”
The rules of the road
However, there may be less incentive to develop such an approach in the UK, since Ofcom’s strict rules on product placement mean the market is unlikely to start resembling its multibillion-dollar US counterpart any time soon.
Although UK programme makers can now take payment for including products, Ofcom’s code still prevents them from “promoting” products in programmes or giving them “undue prominence”. There has to be “editorial justification” for placing a product in a programme, Ofcom says, meaning it “must be relevant to what the programme is about”.
What these words really mean in practice is yet to be seen – Ofcom’s code already stopped broadcasters from giving undue prominence to brands, but the regulator says that concept will have to “develop and evolve” as the market for product placement establishes itself.
These regulations make the situation in the UK “totally different” to the US, says ITV’s Marlow. “We just don’t have the kind of leniency they do. So I don’t think it will be like the US, and I’m quite pleased in one respect, because in the research that we did it was just a bit too intrusive. Advertisers found they had to step back from certain deals.”
“Research conducted by KAE Marketing Intelligence for ITV suggested that product placement could make programmes more realistic – as long as it doesn’t get in the way or jar with the story”
Perhaps the biggest unknown is how UK viewers will respond to product placement. This is, after all, a country of people who grew up watching Blue Peter presenters make Mother’s Day gifts with the Sellotape and Pritt Stick labels carefully obscured. Some programme makers resort to using fake brands – hence the patrons of the Queen Vic pub in EastEnders drinking pints of Thames Bitter and Stolenberg 1940, neither of which are to be found in the real world. Will this make the UK audience oversensitive to product placement, or relieved that programme makers can finally depict the brands that already ubiquitous in our lives?
In IAG’s research only about 2% of British respondents said product placements had negatively influenced their opinion of a programme. One in four said it improved their opinion, because “it was the right product in the right programme”, says Moore. Research conducted by KAE Marketing Intelligence for ITV suggested that product placement could make programmes more realistic – at long as it doesn’t get in the way or jar with the story. But the boundaries of what viewers will consider ‘right’ for each programme are yet to be defined.
The 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale featured a scene where the leading lady compliments Bond on his “beautiful” Omega watch – presumably a lucrative deal for the filmmakers, but one that leaves the audience with the feeling of having paid to watch an ad.
On the other hand, placements can add to a piece of entertainment if they’re handled well. eBay crops up as a plot device in 2007’s Transformers (a film dripping with product placement), when Shia LaBeouf discovers that a family heirloom he has sold online could give evil alien robots the power to take over the world. The appearance of the brand adds a touch of authenticity and humour that otherwise would have been missing.
“It’s going to be slow to evolve,” said Moore. “It’s going to take a while to get a handle on what works and what doesn’t work in the UK, because everyone’s taking a kind of wait-and-see approach – the broadcasters, the advertisers and the producers don’t know what they can get away with, what’s going to work or what the ROI’s going to be.”
ITV’s Messer agrees that everyone will be cautious at first, and isn’t expecting to see characters using and talking about particular products in shows soon. “I think eventually we’ll get to that point,” she said, “but I think it will take a while. It will be a very softly-softly approach, certainly for this year.”
If the most effective placements are the ones viewers hardly notice, that may be an approach that serves the industry well.
Placing products in programmes and measuring the results is becoming a high-tech business. Digital technology allows products and brands to be added in post-production.
Digital insertion firm MirriAd has worked with Discovery to place Kärcher products into episodes of Tommy’s Fix It Yourself (pictured). The firm also helped ITV produce test placements in Coronation Street for research purposes.
The technique allows for more flexibility, allowing products to be added at short notice and after shows have been edited.
Repucom, which audits product placements in ITV programmes, has software that tracks the appearance of brands and products in broadcasts to measure the size, prominence and duration of each placement, with results then validated by people.