The UK government proposal to allow commercial product placement in television programmes means this strategy is likely to migrate finally from the PR department, at least in motor manufacturers, into the marketing and media buying function.
Despite claims made in PR Week that this move is a new opportunity for public relations, I believe the reverse to be the case.
Back in 1962, the entire Ford Cortina Mark 1 press fleet was loaned to the production company of the “Carry on Cabby” movie. The story is that BMC turned down a request to use its models – and was equally unaware of the huge publicity value of placing the original Mini in the Italian Job, demanding trade or retail price for supplying cars.
Of course, the PR approach which involved building relationships and mutual benefit (we get our car shown and the production company saves money) had its downsides. An old friend of mine tells a tale of schmoozing at Pinewood Studios to get a car placed in a top film, only to see it parked briefly at the side of the road in a “blink and miss it” scene.
I remember also discussing the merits of loaning a car to Coronation Street as it would be seen as the vehicle responsible for killing a popular character. As the accident wasn’t the fault of the car concerned (or its driver) and the audience was huge, we agreed to the request.
Already the practice of product placement is much more commercialised. Whether that’s BMW muscling in on the Aston Martin turf that is James Bond – or Ford’s tie in with American Idol (said to cost $78m a year).
A full on marketing machine is now behind such placements. When the company is directly paying for exposure, a more hard-nosed relationship is negotiated. This means the product gets big billing and dedicated air time.
When you look at this from the company and production company perspectives, allowing the extension of product placement into UK commercial television makes sense. The public can’t skip the in-programme advert, and revenues are generated to replace the lost advertising income that has resulted from this practice.
But from the public perspective, such “endorsement” is clunky and unbelievable. Ford’s music videos in Idol have been criticised – although personally, I think the large Coke glasses in front of the judges are just as awkward. In the UK, repeats of the show, we’ve been spared the Ford videos, and the Coke logo has been blurred (but is still recognisable).
Of course, the situation here where labels are hidden or fictional brands created is an equally artificial device. So, should the Rovers Return pub in Coronation Street become Wetherspoon‘s if the money is right?
And, what happens to the baddies if brands don’t want to be associated with them? Is it a matter that if you don’t pay, your car ends up being the villains’ wheels? In 24: Redemption, the good guys drive Hyundai vehicles (the sponsors) and the bad ‘uns are in Fords.
In reality, the world if full of competing brands – but in the product placement world that is impossible. All Transformers become GM cars, Audis are the future according to I Robot, and so on.
As I wrote recently at PR Conversations, it is a real challenge for PR that the media is no longer totally “free to play”. Advertising money used to enable editorial decisions to be made on the basis of securing the right product for a scene (in the case of cars) rather than the one that would pay the most.
Television and the movie business are undoubtedly the poorer for such blatant commercialisation. So, perhaps it is right for PR to relinquish this promotional aspect to the marketing function entirely and focus instead on reputation management matters.
Mind you, when it comes to a great match, such as James Bond and Aston Martin (although his preference in literature was for a Bentley), doesn’t the placement truly reflect the reputation of both brands?