Offending Our English Sensibilities


Just over 70 years ago, in February 1928 Scotsman John L Baird – demonstrated the first transmission of human faces and other moving images by radio across the Atlantic.

He had succeeded in sending the "sound of a face" some three thousand miles from London to New York.   I love that expression, don’t you? It’s the kind of thing a trendy, skinny creative in a shiny Soho agency would say: “Shall we have a ‘Sound of Face’ Skype call at 5?”


Amazing, isn’t it, when you think of it? We (us Brits or Scots) created ‘The Televisor’ (as it was called then) but have been one of the slowest nations to grasp the commercial benefits that it might bring to us, whether via sponsorship or product placement.


However, recently there have been rumblings and grumblings in the press over here that Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, is currently looking into formalizing the practice of product placement within TV shows. 


This, as some of you might know, is a complete U turn from Mr. Bradshaw’s predecessor Andy Burnham. He felt that product placement could harm editorial independence and that nasty brands might hurt or contaminate the audiences in some way – thereby insulting the intelligence of directors, programme-makers and audiences.


Burnham’s prudish Victorian approach had the dangerous possibility of forcing us into a world where every product on television has to look ‘Vanilla’ so as not to offend or influence the viewers’ delicate sensibilities.

Oh, I feel I am going all Charlotte Bronte now!  

Mr. Burnham was quoted as saying ‘As a viewer, I don’t want to feel the script has been written by the commercial marketing director”–Yikes!  What strange world does Mr Burnham inhabit? A world where commercial directors can actually write scripts?


A couple of things that Mr. Burnham failed to take into consideration is that brands are part of everyday life, therefore audiences expect to see them in television shows. 

I am sure that Mr. Burnham would probably turn red with rage, have a nosebleed and immediately fall over if he knew that product placement has been teasing viewers with its ‘petticoat’ within UK television for a very long time. 

I ran a product placement agency during the late 90’s, so I should know.  

We used to target key shows and provide the products free of charge and were not able to formalize any of our actions but it was effectively a happy marriage with the production companies and broadcasters. And guess what? Nobody got hurt and no one was contaminated!

Now it seems that Ben Bradshaw finally wants to formalize Product Placement and I say it’s about time, too. This is a potential revenue stream for broadcasters and an interesting creative outlet for brands.    I’m sure that John L. Baird would see it as a natural extension of ‘The Televisor’ that he made all those years ago.

But watch out Mr. Bradshaw—there is a Mr. Dave Turtle (yes, his real name) waiting in the wings. Mr. Turtle is a spokesperson for Mediawatch UK.

I personally am always very wary of organisations with the word ’Watch’ in their titles, and I think, in Mr. Turtle’s case, I have every reason to be. He argues that, ‘We shouldn’t be using television programmes to push a product, and broadcasters need to be responsible about which audiences they’re selling to,” and goes on to claim that, “Self regulation isn’t working – do we want to go down the American road where you’re bombarded constantly?” 

Well Mr. Turtle, these changes are likely to come as early as next year and you may need a tough shell to shield you from those potential bombardments.  But fear not! Just like other forms of marketing, when Product Placement is implemented as part of an overall strategy and in keeping with story-line integrity, it can work wonders!

I personally don’t mind a trip down the American Road—it would do us all some good. With that, I’m off to keep an eye on The Televisor and try to make time for some ‘Sound of Face’ with my colleagues.


About the Author: Alex Gulland

Alex Gulland began working in the entertainment industry in 1981 with Rogers and Cowan International, working as a publicist for top artists including Elton John and Peter Ustinov and liaising with production and distribution companies like Universal and Merchant Ivory.

In the late 80’s she was a founding partner of Rogers and Cowan Entertainment, which represented brands such as Coca-Cola, Ford and Nestle Rowntree within the film and TV industry.  

Alex next moved to an agency that was building a reputation for breaking the mould of traditional advertising – Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury & Partners.  She was made a partner and creative director of their alternative marketing department, Environment Marketing.

In the late 1990’s Alex left HHCL to set up Showcase International across six European markets, establishing relationships for brands with top production companies on high profile feature film productions such Wag The Dog, Mr Bean, Shooting Fish, Entrapment, and Bridget Jones’ Dairies.

In early 2000 Alex set up Wunjo Entertainment with Russell Jarman Price, working closely with clients such as Manchester United, TSB, Pfizer and Rolls-Royce to bring their brands to life via the medium of film – a medium now firmly established as “branded content”.  

The pair were early exploiters of the internet as a powerful distribution channel for long-form content, establishing a relationship with Intel and Microsoft that provided their clients with “first mover advantage” on the ownership of channels on the worldwide Vista network. 

Looking to expand their branded content offer, in March 2006 Alex and Russell became creative partners of what is now OgilvyEntertainment and have worked with clients including Nestle, Unilever and Ford on a wide variety of branded content projects both on and off-line.


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