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Think BR: Will embed technology lead to increased product placement revenue?

Product placement has been slow to take off in the UK but new technology could change this, writes Philip Hughes, associate in the Media, Brands & Technology department at Lewis Silkin LLP

Philip Hughes, associate in the Media, Brands and Technology department at Lewis Silkin LLP

Philip Hughes, associate in the Media, Brands and Technology department at Lewis Silkin LLP

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Product placement is something that UK consumers have seen before, mostly in cinemas and blockbuster US TV series - James Bond’s use of certain mobile phones wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by most.

However, following the change in legislation at the end of February 2011 the number of product placements seen in UK-produced TV programmes has so far been disappointing.

Product placement has succeeded in cinema as it gives brands the chance to have their product on the attention-grabbing big screen, within something as culturally significant or ‘cool’ as a James Bond film.

Conversely, brand owners and their agencies are, quite rightly, bound to question the value of a few seconds of TV screen time in the background of a daytime soap, particularly during tough economic times. 

This is especially the case when we consider how difficult it is to measure the impact of such activity without bespoke research.

This may all be about to change however, with the introduction of embedded advertising software. 

For example, in May 2011 Sky did a deal that saw posters advertising ‘Pedigree Dentastix’ digitally inserted into Sky’s documentary, ‘A Different Breed’

Technology allows advertisers to digitally insert products into programmes, making it easier and cheaper than having the product physically in the shot at the filming stage. 

This type of service also offers a few advantages beyond that of cost.

From a legal perspective, the technology’s real point of difference is that it makes it easier for the advertiser to demonstrate that there has been no inappropriate editorial influence by the brand owner in question. 

This is because the opportunity to embed a product in a TV programme is effectively sold as advertising inventory after the content has been made, making it easier to demonstrate that the product is not influencing editorial. 

As well as providing virtually limitless advertising inventory and product placement opportunities (due to the sheer number of programmes made), the embed technology also means that product placement can now happen at any time pre-broadcast. 

Part of the reason why product placement on TV may have fallen down in the past is that the opportunities available had to be communicated to potential investors appropriately and at the right time in the production process. 

Matching this timing with the planning cycle of big advertisers and the production timetable for programme makers was no doubt difficult. 

The beauty of this new technology is that this can now be done after the event, allowing those less economically certain and some less organised brand owners, TV sales teams and programme makers, to still take advantage.

What is imperative, however, is how this type of activity is used in the wider communications mix. 

As a stand-alone piece of activity, the value of an embedded product shot is at the very least questionable, but if bought as part of a larger sponsorship deal or advertiser funded opportunity, or if exploited through clever spot placement or at point-of-sale, it could provide real stand out. 

While the presence of, for example, a retail brand’s shopping bag on a kitchen table in Hollyoaks may get noticed, what will really make it stand out is combining such activity with a long-term sponsorship of the programme, for example with the sponsorship credits being character led.

Clever advertising within the programme and taking the content partnership to point-of-sale for the clothes shop would take the deal further, but of course brands need to be careful about focusing on too narrow an audience. 

Interestingly, such deals may also allow the broadcasters, production companies and brand owners to enter the realm of revenue sharing. 

Would production companies or broadcasters ever get involved in such a deal and would advertisers even contemplate one?

Recently Fru Hazlitt, ITV’s managing director of commercial and online, publicly criticised advertisers for not being more creative with TV spots, quoting the interactive Argos promotion in an ad break of Emmerdale as something to aim for

This was part of a successful campaign that exploited product placement, albeit in the traditional sense, as ITV made its soap scripts available ahead of time for the brand. 

Perhaps this signifies a much needed move towards innovative use of TV and openness to new models.  

The success of the embed technology packages however may well depend upon who is selling them, and the amount of premium - if any - attached to them compared to the average TV spot.

It is easy to imagine the production companies seeing the benefit of this, and indeed some already have.

However, do such companies have access and the resources required to target agencies and large brand owners - the places where the money lies?  

Instead, perhaps a partnership with a broadcaster is the way. This is a model which to an extent is reflected by the larger radio groups, who host production in-house and sell their own space. 

Some of the larger radio groups have built themselves a significant new revenue stream by inventing and selling product placement packs as ad inventory, allowing seamless access to relevant editorial via one point of contact. 

The key for such sales again lies in the nature of the medium and the content.

Radio doesn’t put product placement in the background - it is hard to do so - it puts it in the foreground, in the DJ’s mouth, and therefore achieves appropriate cut-through for the brand - while remaining relevant to the audience, if done correctly. 

So the embed technology needs production companies and broadcasters to get behind it, but it seems that the key for embedding products is a type of disruption, unlike with product placement’s distant cousins, sponsorship and ad funded programming, where the brand normally wants to be as close to the editorial as possible. 

A clever communications idea is a must, but brands have to remember not to cross the line - both to avoid annoying consumers and getting on the wrong side of the law through undue prominence or, worse still, undermining the editorial integrity and independence of the programme.

It is a fine balance, but one worth striving for.

Philip Hughes is an associate in the Media, Brands and Technology department at Lewis Silkin LLP


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