December 14th, 2005
EU Rules May Overturn Ban on Television 'Stealth Ads'
By David Rennie and David Derbyshire
Britain’s ban on "stealth advertising" in commercial television programmes could be swept away under new rules announced yesterday.
The European Commission is proposing to blur the line between adverts and programme content and allow product placement in the UK for the first time.
The changes would allow companies to pay to have their cars driven by the stars of British-made detective dramas, their mobile telephones used for dramatic on-screen calls, and their soft drinks swigged by soap opera femmes fatales.
But there are concerns among programme makers that product placement gives advertisers unprecedented influence over the content, plot lines, scripts and even the type of programmes being made.
The proposed directive, known as "Television without Frontiers", also loosens the rules governing when and how often commercial channels may interrupt programmes with ad breaks.
Broadcasters would still be allowed a maximum of 12 minutes’ advertising in any one hour, but the minimum gap of 20 minutes between breaks would vanish.
This paves the way for "micro" commercial breaks lasting 30 seconds or less that interrupt programmes every few minutes.
The British regulator, Ofcom, supports the changes and will launch its own consultation into loosening the advertising rules within weeks. The BBC is not affected by the changes.
Viviane Reding, the EU information society and media commissioner, said the new rules - which have still to be agreed by national governments - would preserve strict safeguards for children. Product placement would be banned in children’s programmes, news bulletins, documentaries and current affairs programmes.
For the first time there would also be a mandatory warning that a show contained product placement, before each screening. The warning would cover foreign shows such as 24, which already include large amounts of paid-for product placement.
Some European countries, notably Austria, already permit product placement, while others ban it outright. It was time for a "level playing field", said Mrs Reding.
European films and television programmes were competing with those from elsewhere in the world, where product placement was routine, she said. "Why should they not have the right to this additional source of income, which is absolutely necessary if we want to safeguard a strong audio-visual sector in Europe?"
Almost all new films produced in Hollywood contain discreet plugs for products, with some popular franchises, such as James Bond films, creating special action sequences specifically to show off particular cars, watches or high-tech gadgets.
Abolishing the ban on micro-breaks would also change the way broadcasters cover sports. Football matches could be interrupted with short adverts each time the ball goes out of play.
Broadcasters would also be allow to split the screen during sports events, showing adverts alongside live sporting action.
Advertisers are increasingly keen on product placements, in an age where digital video technology allows a growing number of viewers to choose to skip commercials.
The new plan is an EU directive, rather than a regulation, meaning that national governments will have some leeway in how they translate its rules into national laws.