Bookmark and ShareSusan Lee is public policy offer at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

Product placement abounds on US series American Idol

Last year, the Government announced that it was considering permitting product placement on British television programmes shown on commerical channels. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport have opened a consultation on the matter, and last week nef submitted a response calling for a continued universal ban on product placement. At nef, we’re concerned about the increasing domination of consumerist messages in our lives. Overconsumption is driving ecological collapse and climate change, while also distracting us from more reliable ways to well-being and life satisfaction. But like the British Medical Association, the British Heart Foundation and the National Union of Teachers, we’re also concerned about the effects of advertising on the health and well-being of children.

When the Government announced the plans, it did promise not to allow product placement on children’s programmes. But the problem, of course, is that children don’t just watch children’s TV.  According to research by Ofcom, the industry regulator, children spend just over half their viewing time watching programmes made for adults. Talent shows like The X Factor is an obvious example. In the US, American Idol, featured a staggering 4,349 product placements during 2007 according to industry sources. Unless we continue the universal ban on product placement, there is no way to protect children from increased advertising.

The estimated revenue to be gained by allowing for product placement on British TV programmes – between £25m and £140m annually – doesn’t appear to be high enough to really warrant product placement on our television screens.  This projected annual value of the product placement industry within British commercial television is low compared with, for example, the BBC’s annual income from the licence fee which raised £3.4bn in the 2008-09 financial year. By allowing product placement in British television programmes for such a price it could damage the value of commercial television due to a possible loss of trust between the public and the television programmes that they watch.  This loss of trust – caused by oral or visual product placement which could affect a programme’s editorial content, storyline or direction – would have a detrimental effect in that people may become increasingly cynical about the content and integrity of television programmes.  And there could be confusion about the distinction between editorial and advertising content in programmes.

Instead of giving companies new opportunities to sell to us, we should be looking for opportunities to limit the amount of advertising within society.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport only held a consultation on this issue in 2008.  However, due to lobbying by some of the commercial television providers in the UK, the Department has decided to ask for views again as they are ‘reconsidering’ their position and are ‘minded to permit product placement’.  But one gets the feeling that it might already be a done deal.

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