Product placement may not sound like a discipline at the cutting edge of brand promotion, but it's a marketing tool that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the world of entertainment. And although it has gained most prominence in Hollywood on the big screen, it is now becoming a key player in TV as well as films.
It can also be a secretive area, with both programmers and 'lenders' wary of publicity and fearful of the regulators who are quick to act if strict broadcasting rules are broken.
Only last month, culture secretary Tessa Jowell highlighted the prevalence and effectiveness of product placement in films when she called for improved media education for children in the National Curriculum.
Speaking at a Bafta seminar, Jowell referred to the fact that Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated film Lost In Translation included a 'product placement co-ordinator' in its credits.
'We're all aware of the power of advertising, and generally advertisements are seen for what they are. But it is reasonable to ask whether people are aware of just how the media is used in varied ways to deliver the corporate message,' she said.
Tighter controls on TV
Films have long been the standard-bearers of product placement. Not subject to the tighter controls of domestic TV, Hollywood has been happy to receive sponsorship money or free 'props', such as expensive cars and accessories, to help finance films.
James Bond's Die Another Day epitomised the practice, with 20 companies paying £44m in total to see their products on the big screen, including Jaguar, Aston Martin and Omega.
At the lower end of the scale, the paint used on the walls of the sets in Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things was sponsored by specialist home decorations retailer Fired Earth.
But away from Hollywood, domestic TV offers a far cheaper and subtler way of getting products seen by millions of viewers. Top soap operas such as Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale regularly pull in millions of viewers, as do programmes such as Casualty, Footballers' Wives and sit-coms. All need props to make the programmes realistic.
Crucially, programme-makers don't receive any payment for this, just the product free of charge, whether on a permanent basis or for a specified time.
Brand owners who lend out or give products to production companies will deal with a specialist intermediary, who will negotiate coverage for the brand or product. Payment is either on a retainer or fee basis.
TV product placement is still a relatively small sector, although it is expected to pass the £10m mark in the next three years.
It is served by a range of agencies, from larger firms such as Rogers & Cowan - part of Weber Shandwick - down to one or two-person operations.
Many of those involved in product placement prefer to keep a low profile, however. Some fear too much exposure would put the spotlight on themselves and attract the attention of the programme-makers and the regulators who police them.
The key to success is having contacts among the 300 or so dressers and prop buyers within domestic programming, possessing a knowledge of upcoming TV schedules, and being aware of the availability of props. The skill of the middle man is then to match up supply and demand on both sides.
Agency Production Profiles has ten clients, each paying a monthly retainer.
Managing director Joe Keenan says that matching appropriate products to programmes is essential. Real cars, beers and everyday items need to be on the screen - as long as they're in context.
'It has to be true to life so it's believable to the viewer,' says Keenan.
'Programmes need the props to make their shows lifelike, but you also have to be careful of your clients' interests. I wouldn't want to lend a car, for example, if the programme plot centred on drug-dealing or road rage.
'We can control what happens to the product up to a point,' he adds, 'but if the producer only wants a brief shot of the car, that's up to him or her.'
For example, the company provided a Peugeot 607 for the first series of BBC crime drama Inspector Linley. The producer then wanted the lead character to drive a more classic car, so the Peugeot was replaced with a Jensen. Clearly such creative decisions are an element that cannot be controlled.
Another success has been for Lexus. The upmarket Lexus SC 430 has been placed in BBC dramas Manchild and Sparkhouse and ITV's Footballers Wives and Midsomer Murders.
Rogers & Cowan director Matt Neale works with eight clients - including Subaru, Smart, Siemens and Nestle - each of which pay monthly retainers of between £2,500 and £5,000, irrespective of the placement success.
Difficult to gauge success
The agency, which has supplied products to all the big TV soaps, as well as Casualty, Footballers' Wives, Spooks and Cold Feet, calculates media values of placement based on length of exposure, where the product was on screen, brand visibility and so on. It monitors all programming and records the level of exposure, reporting this to the client.
One client is Siemens Mobile, whose advertising & PR manager, Simon Robinson, believes that product placement on TV is an important part of the mobile phone maker's marketing mix.
'There are no guarantees as to how much exposure you get, but we target the soaps because of their high viewing figures, especially ones for younger audiences such as Hollyoaks,' he says.
'It is difficult to gauge success, but we see it as an important tool in promoting the wider range of our products. If programmes need phones as props, we're happy to help.'
This is echoed by Sam Bridger, head of marketing in the UK at car maker Smart. She accepts that there are no guarantees as to the level of coverage, but believes product placement makes a good addition to the marketing mix.
So if you're watching TV tonight, try to spot the placements and whether they've sold or reinforced the product or brand image in your mind. That is the one true gauge of whether the marketing technique has been successful.
- Product placement is strictly controlled by media regulator Ofcom and the BBC's own charter rules. Ofcom has adopted the ITC Code of Conduct, which allows programmers to include products to fit in with scenes and surroundings. However, they must not receive payment from the suppliers, nor give undue prominence to the goods
- The BBC's rules mirror the ITC's. The corporation's producers' guidelines say programme-makers need to 'reflect the real world' but must never give 'the impression that they are endorsing or promoting' any product
- There is no industry body or recognised code of conduct for product placement, although many argue whether the strict and clear broadcasting rules make for adequate regulation. Most product-placement firms have to be proactive as well as reactive, trying to match scripts and characters to products on behalf of their clients
- Specialist PR and product-placement firms often work months ahead of actual programme-making by reading scripts in advance. However, they must also be prepared to work quickly in order to meet a changing script. Although firms can help themselves by narrowing their offerings as much as possible to meet the brief, the ultimate decision is with the dresser and programme maker
- While clients can stipulate what they don't want their goods involved in - for example, crime-related storylines, crashes, anti-social behaviour - they have no control over how long their product is featured, where it is used on set or whether it is obvious to the viewer - It is essential to manage clients' expectations of what can be achieved. They might be able to dictate context, but they're not paying for an ad, so they have much less say on the amount of exposure the placement finally gets.