Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Advertising is not bad for your health according to new Labour

Few will be aware that the Department of Culture and Sport has recently undertaken a consultation on product placement advertising in television which closed last month. How such so-called consultations are used as a fig leaf is demonstrated by the statement in the consultation document that: ‘The government is currently minded to permit product placement on UK television.’ In other words it has already made up its mind.

With the recession and the diminishing returns from presently permitted advertising on commercial television, the multi-nationals have been lobbying harder than ever for governments to permit ‘product placement’ as is already the norm in the USA and several other countries. If the government allows this here it will hand television programming over to big business. They will then largely determine programme-making and this will badly compromise artistic and journalistic integrity. Such advertising is insidious because with advertising breaks at least you know when you are being ‘got at’, but by surreptitiously placing products within programmes we are taken unawares and can never be sure what is simply a director’s decision or what the result of the backing company’s marketing strategy.

You can imagine updated television versions of Shakespeare: Lady Macbeth crying, ‘Out damned spot’, as she tries to wipe Duncan’s blood off her hands, is then undercut by a close-up of a strategically-placed ‘Instant Stain Remover Cream’ on her dressing table, or when Juliette asks, ‘Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ we see him hurriedly taking a packet of Durex from his codpiece. These are frivolous examples but this sort of thing, on a different level, will be happening in every programme you watch.
We only need to look at the USA to see how product placement has warped programme-making and unduly influenced film-makers. There, big commercial advertisers are often involved from the early stages of programme development, scripting and editing to ensure the best and most effective placement of their products. To argue that such placement would not affect artistic creativity and freedom is ingenuous. Any creative artist or broadcaster who wishes to challenge their proposals should beware. Product placement only helps the big global players, as they are the only ones who can afford the high advertising fees. So we would have product placement for the likes of MacDonald, Coca Cola and other junk food producers as well as the big drinks and drug manufacturers.
The arguments about the need to protect children, and excluding children’s programmes, as the consultation documents suggests, is spurious, as most children also watch adult programmes. The repercussions on health – obesity, alcoholism particularly – would be enormous. Sleight-of-hand product placement is, in reality, blatant propaganda and to pretend, as the apologists do, that it would have no affect on artistic creativity or influence programme content, is cynical obfuscation. It would also mean that even fewer minority interest programmes are made, nor those on controversial subjects, as big advertisers would not want to have their products associated with such programmes. Television programming is already based on the ‘lowest common denominator’ policy and audience ratings are central to any discussion; these factors would be even more paramount once advertisers call the shots. We would very soon end up with the sort of trash programming that they have in the USA of unwatchable soaps and sitcoms and populist, right-wing chat shows.
For what it’s worth, I did express my opposition to the government’s proposals as part of its consultation exercise. Below is an abridged version of the Department’s reply.

‘Thank you for your recent letter to the Secretary of State, Ben Bradshaw, about product placement on television. He announced in September 2009 that he wanted to change the approach to product placement on television since most of the rest of the world, including the United States, other English speaking countries and many European countries either already allow product placement or intend relaxing their rules in the light of the recent EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

Were the UK to retain the status quo of prohibiting product placement on television, our programme and film makers would be at a serious competitive disadvantage with their foreign competitors. Our film, television and other creative industries are a major part of Britain’s economy and we lead the world in many of these sectors.
In considering changing the approach to television product placement, we recognise the need to weigh the potential economic benefits, for broadcasters and advertisers, against potential health and viewer concerns in respect of, for example, the placement of alcohol and fatty foods and the possible loss of editorial integrity for programme makers. Ministers plan to make an announcement shortly on how we intend to proceed.’

I find this reply preposterous. It emphasises how our creative industries are a major part of the British economy, but fails to appreciate how such interference by the marketing industry will undermine that creative edge.

The proposed safeguard of not allowing placement on children's programmes is inadequate. According to Ofcom, 71% of the television watched by children is outside dedicated children's programming, so would not be covered by the proposed "safeguard". It is particularly hard to protect children when product placement is integrated into programmes and will not be recognised as such. Health experts have also warned that allowing TV product placement can only fuel childhood obesity and worsen other health problems.
The British Medical Association (BMA) warned that allowing alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods to be advertised through product placement will fuel obesity and alcohol abuse: 'The BMA is deeply concerned about the decision to allow any form of product placement in relation to alcohol, gambling and foods high in fat, sugar or salt as this will reduce the protection of young people from harmful marketing influences and adversely impact on public health,' the BMA said in a submission to the Department. Opposition is also coming from public health experts, scientists, broadcasters and the general public, but this government isn’t listening. I am also appalled that the question of ethics or morality appears not to be part of the Department’s deliberation.
That the USA already has such a system is certainly no argument in its favour, as it is perfectly clear that television programming and quality in the USA is, with few exceptions, very poor and centred around selling products rather than having, as a priority, educational and/or entertainment goals.

As far as competitiveness is concerned, Britain has always been competitive on the basis of the high quality of its programmes and why should this not continue; to compete on the basis of who can best advertise products is to let the commercial market dictate. Surely we have learned through the recent banking scandal that to let everything be determined by markets is the road off the cliff. I believe strongly that television programming should be based on clear ethical, educational and artistic criteria and not be subject to the undue influence of powerful corporations and lobby groups.

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