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Do you know your product placement from your prop placement – and which is best for your brand?

James Bond with his branded laptop

With the release of the endorsement-heavy new Bond film Spectre nearly upon us, have you ever wondered what the difference is between product and prop placement?

I regularly receive queries from ISBA members asking me that exact question. It may be of interest to know that both have been quietly used by some of the UK’s biggest advertisers over the last 30 years without generating many headlines.

ISBA and its members were heavily involved in the consultations which resulted, in February 2011, in the Ofcom rules allowing advertisers to pay producers of commercial television programmes for product inclusion, subject to certain checks and controls defined as product placement.

Prop placement

On the one hand we have prop placement, which has been allowed in UK produced TV programmes and films for decades. Under the title “free prop supply”, the BBC Producer Guidelines and Ofcom Guidelines permit products to be supplied for inclusion in productions provided no money changes hands, editorial integrity is maintained and undue prominence is avoided.

It’s a win-win situation. The production company receives free product for a scene and the advertiser gains cost effective exposure for its brands. It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that the placement looks natural and isn’t forced. Prop placements are governed by a ruling that they can’t be ‘unduly prominent’.

The majority of prop placement products can be seen in the background of a scene, hardly dramatic. But if a poster for your washing up powder is seen in a soap avidly watched by 7m people several times a week, this goes down as extremely good media value.

A prop placement agency will aim to place a brand or a portfolio of brands on TV and in films for an annual fee. The creative decisions relating to placements are made independently by the production team. Although there are no guaranteed placements in prop placement, in theory it offers the potential, uniquely in marketing, to ‘own’ the medium. It’s worth noting that no changes have been made to the prop placement rules.

Product placement

Product placement, on the other hand, has been allowed in films since the thirties, whereby products have been placed in films for a specific fee. The best example being James Bond, where a quality product placement, possibly including a verbal reference, can cost millions of pounds. Product Placements are guaranteed via this method.

The UK’s favourable tax regime for film production means that many major international films are shot here, offering opportunities for product placement, including the aforementioned Spectre, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Absolutely Anything, Inbetweeners 2 and Avengers Age Of Ultron.

Product placement offers the option to develop off-screen promotional activities linked to placement. A brand may invest in a ‘paid for’ placement only to find they are usurped at a later stage by a competitor with deeper pockets.

There was a great deal of anxiety when the government decided to allow product placement on UK TV. A number of commentators warned that allowing paid for product placement would lead to an excess of intrusive, prominent placements on commercial TV. But this hasn’t so far been the case.

I think that it’s fair to say that product placement on UK TV hasn’t made the impact that had been expected or hoped. One or two advertisers who originally looked at product placement have decided that prop placement is a better option for them.

Product placement appearances are strictly limited by Ofcom regulations – for example editorial justification is required and the placement can’t promote the buying of the product. Recent product placement, such as the Corinthia Hotel in X Factor (in 2012), breached Ofcom rules and received extensive negative press.

Ofcom’s guidelines don’t allow paid-for product placement on the BBC, which accounts for 30 per cent of the UK’s output. The rules are strict: product placement isn’t allowed in children’s, news, current affairs, consumer affairs and religious programmes on either the BBC or commercial channels.

Prop placement can be more persuasive than product placement as there is no signalling of the placement and the integration can appear seamless. Measurement of ads is an ongoing challenge for advertisers. All brands appearing on UK television can be measured and can therefore provide data against which advertisers can judge the level and type of exposure likely to result from their placement and estimate a return on investment.

So both product and prop placement are working relatively well for advertisers, production companies and broadcasters right now. However, with changes expected in the TV landscape with the future of the BBC being debated and the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple muscling in on the medium, who knows what the future holds?

David Ellison is marketing services manager at ISBA

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