Would you like a nanny with that?

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For the first time, starting this month, Ofcom has allowed businesses to use product placements in British TV programmes. Businesses wishing to place their product must comply with Ofcom's rules, required under UK and European law, which include bans on the placement of not only alcohol, infant formula, foods high in fat, and cigarettes. Ofcom have decided that a good way to alert the British public of product placement is to insert a logo which will appear on the bottom of the screen to alert the viewers that a business has paid for their product to be placed in the program. While this move by Ofcom would strike many as fruitless, it is also betrays a worrying attitude towards the public and business.

Product placement is of course nothing new. Films through their history have been full of placed products that their producers have paid to be featured. The most recent James Bond film came under some criticism because of the favourable exposure Sony Ericsson received. Apple, Coca Cola and many car companies and fast food chains are known for the prominence of their products in films and television series. Many celebrities and athletes are paid millions of pounds to use or wear certain products. It’s hard to see why British TV viewers should be treated differently.

The objections raised to product placement assume that the public is too stupid or naive to notice when they are being sold something, and thus needs a government approved body to protect them. It also assumes that this agency will be competently run, which is a big assumption. But people can usually tell when they are being sold something. When someone sees advertising from Mercedes, Audi, Apple or Microsoft, they know that competing products and brands are being pitched to them.

That the advertising in question is being done via product placement is no different in principle to standard advertising: it is only the method that has changed. There is also, it seems to me, nothing wrong with someone buying Nike products because Roger Federer endorses them or buying Sony Ericsson phones because James Bond makes calls on them. Nor is there anything wrong with Nike paying Federer to endorse their products or for Sony Ericsson to pay United Artists for featuring their product.

The move by Ofcom should be reversed, as it is likely to annoy customers and make companies hesitant to invest as much money in product placement as they would were this decision not in place. Ofcom should also consider lifting the bans they have imposed on certain products, but being a government-created body bound by European law, I won’t get my hopes up.