Advertising has made its way into programming on television but in some cases it has become too obvious and disconcerting.
“The Ariel product placement is about as subtle as Enrique Iglesias’s mole,” tweeted an irate Come Dine With Me South Africa viewer about the detergent range’s blatant advertising during the show.
The first two seasons of the South African iteration of the popular British cooking show were sponsored by Pick n Pay, a collaboration that allowed the supermarket’s products to fit seamlessly into the programme.
But then Ariel backed the third season and its products kept appearing in obvious and unlikely places throughout the show. This drove viewers to social media to complain about what they considered an over-commercialisation of the programme.
Joel Churcher, BBC Worldwide’s vice president and general manager for Africa, says that the show’s ratings were “not at all” affected by Ariel’s product placement and that the broadcaster in fact received very few complaints about it. The reason that the show was scrapped after the third season, he says, is because “the South African television market is fast-paced and our plan is to consistently surprise our audience with fresh, innovative and entertaining formats”.
Whatever the reason, tweets about Iglesias’s mole and others like it show how social media has flattened the unofficial rules that govern product placement on television. In the new arm’s length relationship that brands now have with consumers, audiences can be as vocal as they want to be when they are dissatisfied with advertising.
Fahmeeda Cassim-Surtee, DStv’s sales and marketing director, says social media may have become a loudhailer that empowers consumers, but it also means that brands have to be more careful with what they offer and what their products deliver.
“If product placement seems too obvious and irrelevant, there will be criticism. The responsibility around this sits with the brand, the content producer and the broadcaster. But it often has the biggest backlash against the brand,” says Cassim-Surtee.
A website called brandspotters.com aggregates such scathing tweets about product placement in movies, series and soapies. At the time of writing there were tweets listed under local soapies Generations, Isidingo and Muvhango, all of which are broadcast on SABC channels.
When asked about the perceived over-commercialisation of shows like Generations, Tshifhiwa Mulaudzi, the general manager of SABC’s television sales, says that for a programme which attracts up to eight million viewers every night, Generations does not suffer from excessive product placement.
“Generations is the most-watched programme on the free-to-air and paid-for platform. It’s actually not over-commercialised; it’s under-commercialised. We have been very careful with the extent to which we do product placement there,” says Mulaudzi.
Mulaudzi says that the SABC goes to great pains to make sure that its product placement –
which makes up roughly 20-25% of the broadcaster’s advertising revenue – is not intrusive and does not irritate viewers.
“You’ve got to be considerate of the type of genre and the type of brand you believe can live in that environment. If you just do it recklessly, it becomes a Christmas tree, and it irritates viewers. As much as we sales people are trying to make a lot of money by selling our channels’ platforms, we have to be considerate of viewers at home,” says Mulaudzi.
The SABC has also had to deal with a backlash from some of their on-air talent. Recently, Don Mlangeni-Nawa who has played Zebedee Matabane in Isidingo for 15 years, was brought before a disciplinary hearing after refusing to endorse a particular bank in his lines.
Mulaudzi did not want to comment on Mlangeni-Nawa’s specific incident, but instead said that he would like to see South African television business models work more like those in Hollywood.
LA Screenings is an annual event held in Los Angeles where television programme buyers and potential advertisers from around the world meet up to view prime time pilots for US television’s next season. Mulaudzi says actors are also present at these screenings to interact with prospective clients because they understand the importance of cultivating such relationship with advertisers.
In South Africa, however, the business model works differently.
“The big studios in other markets are independent, so they produce content and license it to networks. Here, it’s the other way around. Media owners actually give a brief of what they want and production companies pitch for business. In other markets, you license that content for that period. It can also be broadcast on your competitor’s network,” says Mulaudzi.
Another thing that international markets have that the South African television industry doesn’t, is legislation that governs precisely how product placement should be done.
Product placement was allowed for the first time on United Kingdom television in 2011, but only under strict conditions regulated by the independent competition authority, Ofcom. Under these regulations, there must be “editorial justification” for a product to be placed in a programme, which means that it must fit in effortlessly with the show’s content. Content may also not be shaped around product placement. According to Ofcom, products also shouldn’t receive too much prominence on programmes and it shouldn’t feel like they are deliberately being promoted. Additionally, if a UK programme contains product placement, the TV channel must show a special logo indicating such.
Cassim-Surtee says that DStv represents channels that abide by Ofcom regulations, so this is already something to which the television service adheres.
“Our rights deals around shows that are international formats also preclude us from manipulating how the content can be delivered. There are already rules around what can and cannot be done,” she says.
Mulaudzi says that while South African television is to a certain extent regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), he believes in self-regulation.
“I have to be mindful that I work for the SABC and our job is to inform, educate and entertain. I have to always take into account our reason to exist. We are a public broadcaster and there is that public service at the back of my mind all the time,” he says.
Bruce Williamson, the managing director of Universal McCann (UM) in Johannesburg, says that he doesn’t think legislation is the right way to solve these issues.
“Ultimately viewers will decide with their eyeballs. When a show becomes overtly contrived, viewers look elsewhere, ratings are lost and the value of attaching one’s brand to these shows is diminished. With the onset of digital terrestrial television, there will be a lot more choice for viewers, which will make them more fickle about what they watch,” says Williamson.
“The best instances are where the product placement actually enhances the viewing experience. People watch television for entertainment, not to be marketed to.”
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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