In television, the appearance on the screen of any branded goods is in the hands of the programme makers, but in film, says Alan Mitchell, product placement is big business.
After it had spent a small fortune to get pop star Dave Stewart to write the music for its ads, someone at BT - or rather its ad agency - had a bright idea. Turn the tune into a single and produce a fully-fledged pop video for the likes of MTV and ITV's Chart Show. Accompany Stewart's music with arresting images from hot-shot director Tony Kaye and, hey presto, you've got two minutes of free advertising. Equally important, you link the brand with a hip young lifestyle and reach the hardest market of all: the TV-phobic under-20s.
Abbot Mead Vickers, BT's ad agency, thought it such a good idea that it persuaded its client to pay for the production of the video. MTV executives were taken aback when they saw the final footage, which used a BT phone box as its central prop and featured the BT logo heavily. Citing ITC regulations which prohibit scenes that give undue prominence to brands, MTV refused to show it - as did every other station. In the words of an MTV spokesman, 'The video was just an extension of the original BT ad'.
MTV's unease was doubtless heightened by the £500,000 fine that Granada had only recently received for repeated infringement of the undue prominence rules. The latter's offences included an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, which came over as an extended commercial for Planet Hollywood, their new restaurant, and a scene from Coronation Street in which a can of Flora cooking oil somehow stayed on-screen for 30 seconds.
But why should 'product placement' cause TV watchdogs so much concern - and, conversely, prove so attractive to marketers? Its advocates point out that, while TV ads only say what advertisers want them to say, the appearance - and, hopefully, use - of a product in a TV programme can promote a brand in other ways. 'It's a very powerful form of endorsement,' says Simon George, managing partner of Drum, the specialist sponsorship agency owned by Abbott Mead Vickers. 'If you get the right person in the right circumstances it can say a lot about your brand. And compared to conventional advertising it is a very cost-effective means of brand exposure.' There's a snag, however. As with 'undue prominence', ITC regulations forbid the appearance of brands on TV in exchange for any form of payment; products can be used, but only for free. In effect, this means that all a company can do is to make its products readily available - typically via a specialist product placement agency - in the hope that they will be requested by programme makers.
If, for example, a producer wants to show a grocery store, instead of approaching 80 different manufacturers and arranging for the delivery of 80 different sets of products, one call to a product placement agency will do the trick. In effect, clients pay agencies for the warehousing and transport of their products, not for their ability to persuade producers to use one brand instead of another. 'We're just the guys in the middle,' claims Graeme Atkinson of one such firm, Prop Portfolio.
Others make the point that it's not worth spending large amounts in television as you usually have little or no say as to how your product is used. Having your beans spat out in disgust or you car not start at a critical moment is hardly good advertising. 'Product placement on TV will always be a very small activity because it is an uncontrollable medium', says John Barnard, head of promotions at the New Media Group and president of the Entertainment Marketing Association, the recently formed trade body for product placement agencies.
In films, however, it is a different story. In Hollywood, product placement is big business; companies typically only provide products after having negotiated a contract with the film's producer. They are able to see how their brand is depicted and may even have a veto. And money does change hands. 'Watch any film and 98% of the products are not there by accident,' says Atkinson.
Usually, rather than paying film makers directly for the privilege of a surreptitious ad, marketers help them in other ways - such as promoting the launch of the film. Last year, for example, BMW spent millions of pounds promoting its association with the latest Bond film, Goldeneye. IBM, Omega, Perrier, Pioneer, Bollinger and Smirnoff all also had contracts with the film's producers.
Such deals can be highly effective. When IBM ran a Goldeneye promotion with the Movie Channel it solicited over 100 enquiries about its products in two days. Similarly, when the producers of the legal blockbuster, The Firm, decided to feature Red Stripe lager - instead of the ubiquitous can of Budweiser - its sales jumped 50%. There is a skill to it however: 'The question is whether you can be clever enough to take the images and values of a $60 million film and wrap them around your product,' says Barnard.