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Does product placement run the viewing experience?


Product placement in 24I was watching recent episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock and Strike Back, this week, and towards the end of last night’s show, I wondered, again, why it was British TV shows were generally so much better than American TV.

Why did do most British dramas seem more realistic, the characters more believable, the sets less artificial? Yes, having a longer tradition of acting, script writing and production plays into it. A robust public broadcasting system that doesn’t have to cater to corporate tastes or duck sticky political issues is another reason. So does not catering to pop fashion trends and using actors and actresses who look like real people (a trend slow to come to fashion- and celebrity-obsessed American culture).

Perhaps, I thought, it’s also because every scene is not liberally peppered with product placement. British shows look more natural and less like set-piece advertising. Viewers are not as often distracted by what are often clumsy and obvious product positionings.

To be fair, in the past decade, American TV has improved remarkably thanks to well-written and well-acted series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Borgias, West Wing, The Newsroom, and 24. I’ve been impressed by many new series – I even liked the uneven, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying Lost (despite some intriguing threads, it failed to fulfill the promise of its first season).

Before The Sopranos, it was pretty much a given that British TV was light years ahead of similar American efforts. Acting, sets, and writing were generally far superior in the British shows. But that has changed and American TV programming – at least from producers like Showcase and HBO – has shown welcome improvement.

At the same time, the quality of American popular TV has fallen into the lightless abyss of self-described “reality” shows replete with thuggish, greedy garbage pickers, unwashed swamp dwellers with bad dentistry, barely literate truck drivers and bottom feeding, irrelevant Jersey-ites. That these have replaced such classic series as M*A*S*H and All in the Family merely underlines the paucity of creativity in American pop TV. And anything that was once launched as a documentary channel (Discovery, National Geographic, History) has descended into trivial silliness with trite, shallow lifestyle pap instead of meaningful content.*

American film, too, has continued its downward trend, riding the wave from grand spectaculars like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia towards the trough of cookie-cutter CGI-driven action films, teen coming of age, predictably violent and ugly slasher flicks, and flaccid, tired comedy films. Yes, there are still good films being made - Avatar was brilliant, Michael Clayton was thoughtful and well-written. The Jane Austen Book Club was a thoughtful romantic comedy. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.

But I digress. I was writing about whether product placement has a role in how viewers appreciate a TV program or movie.

Before February, 2011, product placement was actually banned on British TV. That changed last year, although not without challenges:

The Church of England and doctors’ leaders have opposed the move, saying it could damage trust in broadcasters and promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Even so, there are significant, stringent restrictions on product placement:

Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

Get that last one? Even when allowed on commercial channels, England’s public broadcaster will not be allowed to have such placements. Interesting.

Audi on Strike BackOn Strike Back (a Sky production), I noticed the make of the car in one scene – an Audi. And I noticed that the Mercedes Benz logo on a truck had been rather obviously and clumsily (to me) removed (leaving a circular hole in the rusty grill). The shot of the Audi from the front prominently displaying the logo on the grill was pretty blatant. Was this product placement or simply the use of an actual vehicle? The angle of the shots suggests to me the former. However, this page shows numerous, recognizable brands and logos on other vehicles used in the show, so it’s open to debate which were placements and which were simply used for realism.

But in Sherlock (a BBC production), I did not notice any particularly obvious product placements. I tried to see what sort of computer and phone Sherlock was using, but it wasn’t evident. Products appear as they would in real life – logos and brands might be seen, but are not a focal point of any shot. It takes some work to identify anything. But looking at the database of vehicles used in TV and film, I see several brands that are easily recognized. Sherlock should be free of paid product pacement, however, since it’s a BBC production, so one assumes they were used for realism, not profit.

I can’t say I can recall any product placement in my favourite British shows – Doc Martin, Darling Buds of May, Coupling, Downton Abby, Inspector Morse, All Creatures Great and Small, As Time Goes By, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers… so many I can’t recall all of the British shows I’ve watched. None ever struck me as commercial, however. In fact, many British shows actually provide the full 60 minutes per hour of programming – not the 40-odd minutes we get here – because they aren’t interrupted by advertising.

(Sidebar: On average, Canadians watch more than 25,000 TV commercials annually… and there are no limits on the amount of time a broadcaster in Canada can use for ads vs content.)

But does seeing a brand or model you know make a show more or less realistic? Is it realistic to show generic, unbranded products like computers or cars? Or does it contribute to a sense of distance from reality, a detachment from the story?

Product placement on American TVDoes it make the product more or less attractive to be seen on TV? I watched all eight seasons of 24 without once purchasing a Dell laptop. And despite the numerous placements of Apple computers in TV and film, I never bought one of their laptops. In fact, when I bought a new laptop last year, I didn’t look at either manufacturer – I chose one based on price, features and some online reviews. And the fact that the local seller had it on sale.

Although I don’t watch TV shows like the amateur hour contests shown in the image above**, the clumsy product placement of Coke cups doesn’t impress me. In fact, it makes me wonder if their votes are also for sale. Judges should be impartial and product placement in front of them is clearly a signal that impartiality is open to question. Seeing this would definitely affect my viewing experience negatively.

Does product placement spoil or interrupt the viewing experience for others? While I say yes it does if it’s blatant enough to be noticed, according to one poll on YouGov most viewers don’t notice:

Product Placement Doesn’t Spoil Viewing, Claims the Public
Of those surveyed by YouGov in July 2011, 59% said they did not have a negative experience of product placement and claimed that it made no difference to their viewing experience. 33% of those polled disagreed that product placement advertising negatively impacts the integrity of a TV programme.
The poll also showed that young audiences, aged 18 to 34, were the most likely to form a positive impression of product placement, with 25% of those aged 18 to 24 stating their brand perception would become more positive if seen in a UK TV Programme.
So despite it being early days for product placement on UK TV, these positive reactions show it could prove very lucrative for brand advertisers.

But people are aware of product placement, says another poll:

A YouGov poll, taken at the end of February 2011 shortly after the decision was made, found that over one third of respondents had no idea what product placement was. However another poll, taken in July 2011, found that nearly three quarters of respondents (72%) knew what product placement was, with nearly half (46%) stating that real brands placed in TV programmes can make them seem more realistic.
Since February 2011, there have been less than 20 examples of product placement advertising in UK TV programmes. However, despite a slow start, the product placement market in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £120m in the next five years. Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, said: “There appears to be a gradual acceptance taking place as people see product placement more and more. We’re all consumers of brands, and as long as placements aren’t too overt, it’s very realistic for us to experience the same household brands in the programmes we watch.”

Ofcom's product placement logoOf course the actual number of people surveyed in either poll isn’t mentioned in these news pieces, so one can’t give a lot of credence to the reports until those numbers are produced. After all, 59% of six people is irrelevant.

The other question this issue raises is about how blase consumers have become to advertising: have we been numbed by so many ads that product placement is invisible to the average viewer? In which case, those megabucks being spent on product placement are being wasted and advertisers need a new venue. Maybe even a new paradigm.

So does product placement make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that my own perspectives and prejudices will affect how I see a product or brand in any context. Just like if I see someone smoking on TV or in a film, it causes me to disassociate from the story and make a mental judgment of the character. If I see someone sipping a soda, I do the same (both negatively affect my viewing experience). But seeing a blender brand? Or a washer brand? It doesn’t affect me. I probably don’t notice it unless the placement is clumsy and too obvious. See a guitar brand? A ukulele brand? A tequila brand or anything else I might have some interest in? I might pay more attention, but it doesn’t sway my consumer soul one way or the other. At least consciously.

Product placement may be good business for marketing companies and good revenue for film and TV producers (look up the value of product placement in the ad-dense James Bond flicks). But I question whether they have significant impact on consumers today, aside from distracting us from the storyline.My advice: look for ways to engage the viewers, not simply try to seduce them.

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* Looking at today’s listings (your local lineup may be different), I see the following depressingly craptastic shows scheduled for Saturday evening viewing (this partial list doesn’t include the paid programming and infomercials like “Hair Loss News: More Hair in as Little as 4 to 6 Weeks: running on Fox): Storage Wars, Showbiz Moms & Dads, The Real Housewives of New York City, Pick a Puppy, The Great Food Truck Race, Pawnathon Canada, Canadian Pickers, Pawn Stars, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Paranormal Witness, Parking Wars, Love It or List It, Dumbest Stuff on Wheels, Keasha’s Perfect Dress, Impractical Jokers, 1 girl 5 gays, SugarStars, Billy the Exterminator, 30 Seconds to Fame, Cheaters, Punk’d, Buy Herself, World’s Worst Tenants, Cash Cab, Tabatha Takes Over, Celebrity Style Story, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag, Rescue Mediums, Party Mamas, Caught on Camera, Baby First Club, Marriage Under Construction, Swamp Wars, Styleography, Style by Jury, Oh So Cosmo, Fashion Hunters, The Hunks, Playboy’s Coeds and others – more than 800 TV channels and half this drek is repeated over and over, not only on channels, but back to back in time slots.
Thank the gods for CBC, TVO and PBS, which still continue to give us content. Unfortunately, we cannot get BBC America on Canadian networks – we are instead forced to get the generally unwatchable and crass BBC Canada which mostly replays Mike Holmes and HGTV shows, surrounded by dreary “reality” restaurant shows: Jamie’s Meals in Minutes, Restaurant Makeover, Jamie’s Food Escapes, Food Inspectors, Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. BBC Canada is an embarrassment.
** My ability to withstand TV commercials grows less every year. By the second ad, I’ve started to fidget, check the Blackberry for email. By the third I’m surfing to other channels looking for content. At the fourth, I’ve muted the TV and am playing the ukulele parked beside the sofa. More than that, and I’ve lost interest in the program entirely, and have either changed channels, or picked up a book.
We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV for the simple reason of the increasingly longer ad clusters. I will buy a season of a recommended show on DVD, and watch it without ads, however. I would consider a PVR to record shows only if it could edit out the ads and save the result to a DVD or USB drive. As I understand it, the PVRs available from Rogers do not have these necessary features.