Product Placement: Not Just for Advertising

PR class post. Bonus: I got to use the material for this in my Wall Street Journal article write-up for advertising class too. Ah, convergence.

Last week Britain’s public service network ITV (one of the nation’s most-watched networks) debuted the country’s first-ever product placement in television. The U.K. has long been known for its advertising regulations, but in December 2010 their independent regulator Ofcom decided to allow TV product placements.

Can you spot the coffee maker? It's chilling on the back counter.

The product was a Nestle coffee maker used on the set of ITV’s “This Morning” cooking show. The coffee maker wasn’t involved in the recipe, but ITV expects to net the equivalent of $163,000 for its on-screen presence over the course of the next three months.

Britain’s TV networks have resisted product placement for so long because they didn’t want to offend viewers. The BBC sets the standard in ad-free TV, believing in programming unpolluted with commercial interests.

In my opinion, the BBC’s stance on ad-free TV is commendable. But ITV hasn’t stooped too low by introducing product placement. It can be a natural fit for programming when certain brands make a difference to the story.

Product placement is a PR function, too. Celebrities using brands in public, artists mentioning brands in music and prizes at events are all examples of product placement a PR practitioner might employ. But rather than paying for the placement (which occurs in advertising), PR product placement would entail persuasion of person or group to use or mention the product. If someone is genuinely excited about a product, not just using it because they’ve been paid to, the brand’s image is built up in a way that feels natural.

Building on the example of “This Morning,” unpaid product placement might occur when the chef uses a certain brand of spaghetti sauce that a PR person persuaded him to use. The PR department would send the chef a sample, with a message urging him to use it in a recipe. If he honestly preferred the brand, he may include it in his show and recipe. Then the sauce would be promoted for almost free.

Product placement fills a void that advertising leaves. It feels more like word of mouth – which is more personally persuasive than straight-up advertising.

How else do you think PR people can use product placement? Do you think it’s overdone and has lost its potency?

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