Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw is not only putting increasing pressure on the BBC to share its licence fee income with the private companies, but is now proposing to lift the ban on ‘product placement’, in line with most other EU nations. Bradshaw argues that a partial lifting of the ban might help commercial broadcasters survive the downturn in advertising revenue. They are sniffing succcess at last after their long campaign for the deregulation of advertising.
This is yet another example of new Labour ministers bowing to big business pressure. With the continuing economic crisis, commercial TV companies have found their advertising revenues plummeting and are desperate to get their hands on BBC licence fee money but also have their hands untied to turn programmes into wholly advertising exercises. Should we be worried? Yes, certainly. Blurring the line between editorial content and commercial messages sets a very dangerous precedent and is not in the interests of the public or programme-makers. It would also damage any remaining trust there is in the integrity of journalists, broadcasters and film-makers.
One only needs to look at the USA to see how product placement has warped programme-making and unduly influenced film-makers. There, big commercial advertisers are even involved in the early stages of programme development, script-writing 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 a nonsense. 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’s, 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 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.
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 for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the plan. Oppostion is also coming from public health experts, scientists, broadcasters and the general public, but this government isn’t listening.
The fact that most advertisers insist on their products being advertised only on ‘family-friendly’ programmes or those with big viewing ratings also has enormous potential repercussions. It would leave minority programming, the arts, serious documentaries or political film-making out in the cold, as few advertises would be prepared to have their products associated with them as it could prove too controversial. We have already seen this process happening in the mad race for top viewing figures, s the only criterion of success. This seems to be the only factor that broadcasting managers and governments respond to.
I’m no uncritical admirer of the BBC, but you only need to look at those countries with no genuine public broadcasting system to see how standards plummet, with viewers offered only non-stop garbage. One of the reasons why the BBC’s output is much admired worldwide is that you can watch or listen to programmes unadulterated by ad-breaks.
Surely we have to challenge the commercialisation of the last free corners of our society? We already live in one where profitability, commercial success and cash criteria have come to dominate public policy. It is time we fought back and insisted on central social values such as caring, solidarity and a public service ethos be reinstated at the centre of government policy. A principled opposition to the further deregulation of advertising and a deeper commercial penetration of the media have to be a part of that fight-back.
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This post was written by John Green