I was watching season five of 24 a few nights ago (for the second time), when I clocked something weird that I hadn’t noticed during my first viewing of ‘Day 5’ back in 2006.
As President Charles Logan and other prominent political figures gathered at an airfield to receive the flag-draped casket of assassinated former President David Palmer, it cut to a shot of Logan’s (and formerly Palmer’s) Chief of Staff, Mike Novick, sombrely watching the funeral procession pass before him. Admittedly, there was nothing too weird about that. But what I found slightly jarring was the fact that Mike then looked down at his mobile phone [cut to a close-up of his Sprint mobile’s colour screen], where coverage of the very funeral he was attending was being live-streamed by Fox News.
The only thing missing from this scene for the DVD release (aside from a presidential wake catered by Burger King® on the extras disc) was a news ticker, reading: “We don’t just cover fictional presidents. Why not check out Fox News’s live-streaming service on January 2nd 2007 for the state funeral of former president Gerald Ford, available in high-resolution colour on all Sprint® mobiles!”
I wasn’t impressed.
In later episodes, I feared we might see Jack Bauer torturing a terrorist with a fountain pen swiped from a nuclear scientist’s desk in a wood-panelled study. Plunging the pen into the terrorist’s brachial plexus, Jack would shout over the man’s blood-curdling screams: “I can do this all day, you son of a bitch, because this pen’s virtually indestructible iridium nib won’t suffer any damage as a result!” Jack would then gulp down a Coke®, wipe the chilled aluminium can across his forehead, then impressively stab the blood-stained fountain pen clean through it.
Eyeballing his terrified captive, Jack would then snarl: “You’re going to tell me the exact location of the nuke. And even though you’ve just seen me abuse this JML Classic Pen, I’m going to use it to write down the coordinates you give me…with no loss of ink flow or blotting whatsoever. Now talk!”
As I’ve now seen all eight seasons of 24, I’m happy to report that no such scene ever transpired. Thankfully, Mike Novick watching live-streaming of an event at which he was present was as stupid as it got. But I guess that’s product placement for you. And it’s something that we Brits are going to experience more frequently from now on.
On Monday, This Morning became the first British TV show to feature product placement, with Nescafé reportedly securing a £100,000 three-month deal for their Dolce Gusto Espresso machine to appear in the kitchen area of the studio.
I suppose it’s easier for the show to begin this era of product placement with a harmless inanimate object. Imagine how uncomfortable it would be for Gino D’Acampo to talk viewers through a tasty meatball recipe while under the watchful gaze of the Birds Eye polar bear. Just picture the indignant look on D’Acampo’s face as Willem Dafoe’s hypnotically sinister voice pipes up off-camera: “What about the Chicken Dippers, Gino? Dippers! Do you really think meatballs can make you happy? Oh, Gino. Your recipe makes me so sad. I don’t like to be sad.”
Product placement on British television is sure to herald a new era of annoyance for viewers everywhere. (Although, playing ‘spot the obvious product placement’ game might be mildly entertaining for a short while.) However, there are rules.
According to Ofcom: “Product placement will be allowed in films (including dramas and documentaries), TV series (including soaps), entertainment shows and sports programmes. But it will be prohibited in all children’s and news programmes and in current affairs, consumer advice and religious programmes made for UK audiences.”
“European legislation also bans the product placement of tobacco (and related products) and prescription only medicines in all programmes. In addition, UK legislation bans the product placement of alcohol, gambling, foods or drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, all other medicines and baby milk in programmes made for UK audiences. Ofcom has also prohibited the product placement of products and services that cannot be advertised on television, such as weapons and escort agencies.”
So we can all sleep soundly in the knowledge that we’re unlikely to see Aled Jones introducing hymns on Songs of Praise while firing a Heckler & Koch XM25 from the pulpit. And the episode of Something Special, where Mr Tumble secures the expensive services of a curvy escort to accompany him to the zoo, will never see the light of day.
Actually, you can scrub those examples from your mind anyway, because under the terms of the BBC Agreement product placement is not allowed in programmes made for BBC licence fee funded services. However, it’s entirely possible that BBC series repeated on commercial channels could have brands digitally inserted later on. So we may yet see Doctor Who defeat the Cybermen by maliciously inserting Snack-a-Jack® rice cakes into their CD-drive bumholes while they sleep. (I’m not an avid watcher, as you might have guessed.)
I’m not entirely comforted by the fact that there are ‘rules’ governing product placement on British television. It’s a bit like instructing a pride of lions not to stalk, attack, maul and kill a group of playing children, before releasing them into a playground.
A few years ago, it was reported that McDonald’s products had been introduced into some regional news programmes in the States (described by the Guardian as the “tentacle-like growth of clandestine advertising in American TV”), with anchors on Fox 5 News in Las Vegas presenting their morning shows from behind two large cups of McDonald’s iced coffee.
Maybe the product placement in that instance was designed to take the sting out of Las Vegans’ local news. So when a newsreader solemnly reads the headline ‘32 dead as fire sweeps through childrens’ party’, viewers will have forgotten how sad they are by the time the anchor has finished mesmerising them with a noisy, satisfying slurp from a branded vat of iced coffee.
(Actually, seeing as the iced coffee in question was just a bogus liquid with fake ice cubes, the news anchors didn’t even chance a sip during their news bulletins. It was all just an illusion.)
Still, how long before the rules are relaxed here and it becomes the norm for Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy to announce grim headlines while sucking on Soleros® or diving into a ‘More to Share’ bag of Maltesers®?
Of course, the rules state that there must be ‘editorial justification’ for a product to be placed in a programme, which means the product must be relevant to what the programme is about. According to Ofcom: “The content of programmes shouldn’t seem to be created or distorted, just to feature the placed products. Programmes also can’t promote placed products or give them too much prominence. So there shouldn’t be any claims made about how good a placed product is, or so many references to a product that it feels like it is being promoted.”
I hope advertisers and programme makers abide by these rules. Because the moment Ken Barlow marches out of the Rovers Return after declaring that he’s going to do a poo at Paul’s – before a scene in which he’s shown happily crapping in a dreamy fog of Glade® Touch ‘n Fresh – there’ll be no turning back for us.