I don't really like adverts. Okay, I like some, like that Transforming dancing car one for Ford, or that drumming gorilla one for Nestlé, or that one where the man puts on some classical music and runs through a wall then up a tree into space, which was for washing powder, or shampoo, or walls, or trees, or perhaps space, I dunno.
Anyway, the point is, adverts stay outside of the programme itself. They're a whore's bargain that allows television that isn't funded by a license fee, or a cable subscription, to exist, but at least the viewer knows where they are, and they can usually tell the difference between the adverts and the shows themselves.
But that line is soon going to be crossed, and I do not think this will be a good thing in any way.
From this article on the BBC news website:
"Product placement is to be allowed on British TV shows, in a move expected to be announced next week. Independent broadcasters will be allowed to take payments for displaying commercial products during shows.
The change is intended to bring in extra funds for commercial broadcasters. Experts believe it could raise up to £100m a year. There are currently strict rules against product placement and this ban would remain in place on BBC shows.
Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw is expected to announce a three-month consultation on the changes in a speech to the Royal Television Society next week. An ITV spokesman welcomed the move, which he described as "reforming UK prohibition".
"You have to trust the consumer. If it's overdone or tasteless, viewers will switch off." (Peter Bazalgette, Big Brother creator).
He said: "If the government does decide to permit product placement, it will be warmly welcomed by the commercial broadcasting industry and advertisers alike."
But not, note, by writers, directors, producers, or viewers.
My stance on this is very much in line with David Lynch. He's being asked about product placement in Hollywood, in his capacity as a film-maker rather than a television producer, but he has experience of both, so I think we can take a few seconds to listen to his views. Video not entirely SFW.
Okay, here's a more detailed look at why loosening the restrictions on product placement is a really bad idea, for show creators and audiences alike:
1. It makes for worse television. If you think product placement means advertisers and PR firms come crawling pathetically to the programme-makers, begging to have a scene where the main characters all have breakfast include a jar of their savoury yeast product appear with the label at least half-facing the camera, think again.
These people see their brands as characters in themselves. They want their products to be mentioned as having specific virtues, and as being objects of wild aspiration. Which means scenes like The Cheerleader One in Heroes becoming hugely, yet somehow unconvincingly enthusiastic about her dad giving her what is, to all intents and purposes, a rather dull saloon car (although one curiously out of the price bracket those characters could afford), which she, of course, mentions by name. While jumping up and down excitedly. And she can regenerate from nuclear explosions, so we are supposed to take it this is a very exciting car indeed. Which it isn't.
Meanwhile, the two Japanese blokes get equally excited about being able to rent another car of the same make for their journey - and of course, we know (or should guess) that during that journey nothing bad is going to happen to them in said car, like a breakdown, or a crash, or anything that might reflect even slightly badly on the manufacturers, so there goes any narrative tension for that part of the story.
And as a writer, it's bad enough having to run storylines and dialogue past script editors, producers, lawyers, broadcast company (or network) executives and legal departments. But now we have to run them past PR departments and advertisers? Bleurgh.
2. The people who are claiming product placement is a good thing do not have the interests of the viewer, or even good television, at heart. Let's look at that last quote from the BBC article again:
"You have to trust the consumer. If it's overdone or tasteless, viewers will switch off."(Peter Bazalgette, Big Brother creator)
Note how this has expertly reframed the topic as a matter of trust in the consumer, rather than in the programme-makers. And of course, note also the implicit irony in the qualifications of the person making the quote.
Because people did finally abandon Big Brother, on exactly the grounds of it being overdone, and tasteless, and greedy, and repellent, and exploiting the mentally ill, and eventually just because it was dull television, but it took a while for it to happen, and in the meantime, most of the people involved made quite a lot of money. And a few of the people involved made astonishing amounts of money, and oh look, these are exactly the people who are defending loosening the restrictions on product placement.
3. Product placement kills the trust between the programme-makers and the audience. Now, champions of product placement will claim any detractors as wanting their programmes to show some Neverland, where no brands or recognizeable products exist, which is, like most things that come out of these peoples' mouths, a lie, and I shall prove it thusly:
A while ago I wrote this scene for Green Wing involving mini Mars Bars (not like that):
I didn't write this scene because I was paid by Mars, I wrote it because a friend of mine at the time always had in his house a bag of mini Mars Bars, and would reward himself with one when he managed to snatch a tiny, pathetic, but at least tangible victory in an otherwise quite bad time of his life, which seemed to fit with the sort of emotional turmoil the main characters in Green Wing were going through. But with speedy-up camera bits.
So I included a brand name not because Channel 4 or Talkback would get extra money from chocolate manufacturers to make the show, but because that scene was based on truth - a real physical truth (my friend and both really liked mini Mars Bars) and an emotional truth - that in times of stress, you have to take comfort where you can, even if it's in a knowingly crap, but self-aware sort of way. And, you know, I do quite like mini Mars Bars (please don't send me any though, people from Mars the company not the planet, because they are essentially quite bad for you, and I'm trying to lose weight).
To return to the central point, it's almost as though, if people made products that were good, and people formed an emotional attachment to them, ascribing them certain virtues and aspirational qualities, those brands would be written into shows without advertisers even having to pay for them. Imagine that.
In fact, BBC shows quite often show recognizable brands, in the form of cars, whose manufacturers frequently supply vehicles to productions for free. Rank hypocrisy of the kind that cause people like Jas. Murdoch to go into a frothing libertarian coma? Well, it wouldn't be terribly reasonable to expect the BBC to develop their own range of un-branded vehicles, as I'm fairly sure that's not the sort of thing the license fee was invented for. So real cars have to be used. But in this case, because the programme-makers haven't taken any money from the car manufacturers, they are obliged to neither mention the brand name in as many lines of dialogue as possible, or are told they can't have scenes where the car breaks down, or is involved in a crash, or is slightly damaged in a way that would imply the vehicle is made of anything less that refined adamantium (the stuff Wolverine's bones are coated in), so I think that's an acceptable compromise.
And if you doubt the lengths manufacturers, or their PR companies will go to to protect their brands, consider the following quote from the wiki page:
"Emerson, makers of the InSinkErator brand in-sink garbage disposal sued NBC for the use of their clearly branded product during a scene where Claire's hand is badly mangled after she places it in a running garbage disposal (Genesis). Emerson claimed NBC misrepresented any risks or potential injuries posed by the InSinkErator on the show, while portraying the brand "in an unsavory light, irreparably tarnishing the product." The company settled with NBC out of court on Feb 23, 2007."
These people take the representation of their products on television, and in film, very very seriously.
4. It makes it even harder to make shows that don't take place in the present. Battlestar Galactica got by without product placement, unless you count the manufacturers of toasters. Or the makers of 'Frak', if it exists. But you can bet no possibility of product placement made the show even harder to get off the ground in the first place. And product placement is sneaking in even here, the recent Star Trek film having a couple of spectacularly clumsy mentions of mobile phone brands and weak American lagers that really didn't do an otherwise excellent bit of smart entertainment any favours.
5. We've already seen how it poisons other cultural forms. Product placement acolytes will argue that films already contain plenty of 'brand exposure'. In fact, Bazalgette goes on to say:
"And it's rife in British television anyway. There's product placement in movies that go on television and in imported American TV shows and dramas."
Yes, American shows, and big noisy, rubbish Hollywood films, often involving Will Smith, for some reason, often do have lots of product placement. And sometimes, living in Cornwall, I drive past a muck spreader. That doesn't mean that having been exposed to muck spreading, I then desire to roll around in freshly-sprayed fields, shouting 'spray me big boy, I want every pore covered! WOOOO-arglesplurgh*coff*". Not since they started to crack down on that sort of thing. So I don't think that stands up as an argument, frankly.
6. Finally (hurrah!) where is this extra £100m a year even going to come from? The problem commercial television is having is a lack of funds from advertising - the same companies aren't going to suddenly find millions of extra pounds they didn't have lying around to use for... advertising their products on television. So I'm confused about that.
So taking all things into consideration, in this thing, as in so many others, I'm with David Lynch.