Big Brother's brand appeal lingers

This week sees the launch of the fifth series of reality TV show Big Brother. It's sure to pull in the viewers, but why do brands want to associate themselves with what many see as a stale format? Ian Hall investigates.

Hold on to your clipboards, Davina and Dermot are back. Big Brother 5, set to kick off this Friday, will see the latest reality TV show contestants enter a new world of 24-hour surveillance - and potential PR tie-ups.

Channel 4 appears to have pulled out all the stops to make this the most feisty household yet - in the words of its own recent marketing campaign, BB5 will be an 'evil' show.

BB5 will apparently bring harsher weekly tasks and housemates who could include a former prostitute and a Romanian asylum-seeker ('who will carry on claiming benefits while inside the house' - The Sun).

Charlie Gardner, head of corporate and public relations at Endemol UK, the production company behind the show, hopes conflict, tension and romance - not necessarily sex - will keep the viewers entertained.

The consensus is that BB5 is a make-or-break series for a format that was once seen as the cutting edge of televisual innovation, spawning a thousand copycats. The ten weeks of BB4 attracted an average audience of 4.5 million, one million down on the previous year.

Less exciting last year

C4 head of marketing Bill Griffin acknowledges that BB4 was not as 'exciting' as previous years, but adds: 'It is easy to write things off prematurely. The very format of the show allows for very rapid reinvention. There is a lot of goodwill towards it - it remains the godfather of reality TV shows.'

Paul Samuels, head of sponsorship at O2, which has ceased to sponsor BB, points out that although fewer people tuned in to BB4 than in previous years, viewing figures were 'still huge'. He describes the mobile services firm's association with BB as a 'great success for us from a brand and revenue perspective'.

With O2 diverting its sponsorship cash into music initiatives, it has been replaced as BB sponsor by TalkTalk, the home phone service from Carphone Warehouse that is aiming to rival BT in the residential fixed-line market.

CW marketing director Tristia Clarke says BB's 'stature' and 'mass-market appeal' led to TalkTalk's sponsorship of the programme.

The masses will no doubt tune in despite media disdain (as PRWeek went to press, the Daily Mirror had yet to decide whether to again label writer Kevin O'Sullivan as its 'anti-BB correspondent').

As Cake planning director Jim Dowling says: 'If you think BB5 is doomed to fail, think again. We are still talking about a very loyal and sizeable hardcore audience. Throw in C4's marketing budget and it's a major platform from which a brand can operate.'

Storm Communications MD Derek Lowe says BB5 will 'inevitably' be 'roasted by the red-tops', but claims 'it still gets a focused young audience, so for certain brands, I'd still recommend it, budgets permitting'.

He says that when energy drink V, a Storm client, sponsored I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!, it experienced a four-fold sales increase and there was 'great workable PR material. We're still seeing pictures of (pouting model) Catalina in her "V string" bikini popping up in features a year on'.

In respect of BB, regulator Ofcom will step in if brands are given undue prominence - any brand mentions must be editorially justifiable (C4 tapes over or removes product labels). Nonetheless, one brand whose association with BB worked wonders is Black Tower, the wine popular in the 1970s - its instantly recognisable black bottles were on show in BB3, during such moments as Jade Goody's cringe-worthy strip. Sales took off.

Lowe describes Black Tower's prominence in BB3 as 'priceless' in PR terms, adding, with reference to his own client, 'I'd have liked that to have been Blue Nun'.

Sally Fearfield, joint managing partner at consumer PR agency Starfish Communications, says companies that could benefit from associations with BB5 range from condom brands to manufacturers of hangover cures, cider, suntan creams and intimate hair-removal products.

Contestant link-ups

The Outside Organisation will again act as a conduit between the media, PROs and evictees.

Outside senior publicist Peter Berry says that, in general and contrary to popular perception, most ousted contestants do not want to 'go to the opening of an envelope'.

Berry says media interest in BB3's Jade has far superseded that for any other contestant from the past two series. In general, each contestant will receive anything from 'just the one' to 'double-figure' approaches from firms wishing to hire them to endorse their brand - the average number of approaches is four.

Gardner adds: 'If a housemate has a trait that suits a brand's values, PR link-ups can work very well.'

But many brands are wary of associating themselves with BB contestants.

As Dowling cautions, for example: 'Don't invite the evictees to your launch party - the (Mirror's) 3am column will take the piss.'

Perhaps the oddest approach that Berry can remember is the ironing board cover manufacturer that wanted to photograph two male evictees naked and stick their images on its products. The evictees declined.

If the suggestions that this series is to feature the most colourful characters yet are to be believed, BB5 will produce at least a couple of chancers likely to say 'yes' to such PR flirtations. Whether PROs believe it wise to associate their brands with them is another matter.

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