It’s nothing new. Rumour has it that Jules Verne, the 1873 author of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ was lobbied hard by transport and shipping companies, keen to get a mention of their services on the most influential platform of the day, the book.

Fast forward to the present day and product placement is a regulated business proposition. In 2011, UK regulations were relaxed by OFCOM. Eighteen months on, and having worked on a variety of placements with clients, what have we learnt? Chris Fuller, Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s Broadcast Sponsorship Associate Director bought us up to speed.

Chris, clarify what changed 18 months ago in terms of OFCOM product placement laws.

Up until February 2011, you weren’t allowed to place products on TV by paying for that opportunity. Prop placement was the model and this was handled by agencies set up for that sole purpose. The down side was that you might get screen time and you might not. If you did get screen time, you weren’t allowed to activate it in any of your communications, produce national print adverts or PR it.

What has been the net result of the changes for clients and media agencies?

So, potentially, the idea is that it shakes up the market, offers a ton of opportunities across all commercial television – not the BBC obviously – and we should be able to pick timings, type of opportunity and activate it.

The reality is not quite so straightforward because it still has to be editorially justified to OFCOM. We still have to be wary of undue prominence and there’s still a whole host of brands and categories that can’t be included. For a lot of FMCG clients, for instance, even though soaps would be perfect, the majority can’t get in there because of the restrictions on HFSS products (high fats and sugars). The restrictions have meant it’s been a slow burn because it’s taken a while for people to figure out how to make them work to our advantage.

What are the main challenges when looking for the right opportunity for the right brand?

There are challenges involved in finding an opportunity for some of the more innocuous brands. How do you make insurance work for instance? One of the most famous examples has been Nationwide with the cash machine in Coronation Street – perfect. But that doesn’t really work for an insurer. Because you still can’t make claims about your products or services. You could conceivably have six sheets or posters in the background that are about that specific offer of the moment but OFCOM restrictions generally won’t allow this type of messaging.

It’s tricky for a retail client because their focus is usually on price messaging. Sometimes the timing is off. It’s similar to sponsorship in so much as a brand will say ‘we would like this timing, this content and this price’ but it’s quite rare to get budget, content and timing aligned. There are limited opportunities. You usually have to give on one of them. It’s the same reality for product placement.

As far as timing issues are concerned, are there ways around that?

That leads to an interesting area. So there is physical placement and there is digital placement. Physical placement requires lead times. If you’ve got a new car and your launch is twelve months away and you have a show that launches at the same time; you’d think it could be a perfect fit but it’s not. The show is going to be shooting now but your car is not going to be ready for another year so you’ve got a problem with product. The alternative is digital placement whereby a product is digitally integrated into a shoot, be it a bottle of Evian on a table or posters. You literally would not know that it’s not real. It’s very smart technology.

‘A League of Their Own’ used digital placement when Usain Bolt appeared on the show integrating his sponsor, Visa, by filming an outside broadcast and digitally placing Visa on all the boards around him.

So how can we best work with the new regulations on behalf of our clients?

Look for the opportunities that really lend themselves to particular products. Live formats and magazine formats can work brilliantly for cooking brands. We partnered with ‘Sunday Brunch’ and Kenwood and the products got lots of airtime because they cook three times a show and the products are fully integrated into the programming.

Ditto GSK who we partnered with in the Celebrity Big Brother house last year. The gym was stocked with Maximuscle and Lucozade Revive, two products that sit outside HFSS (high fats salts and sugars) so there was branding every time the celebrities were in the gym. In addition we had Aquafresh in the bathroom so the products were constantly on screen, we got a decent amount of airtime and the partnership appeared natural.

How do we evaluate the efficiency of product placement?

This is another interesting area and it’s different according to each broadcaster. Some sign up to Repucom who were originally a sports sponsorship evaluation company. They use proprietary technology that allows them to track logos on shirts or any of the branding online and give an evaluation and they’ve applied the same technology for TV product placement.

For example, our placement of a DFS sofa on This Morning is evaluated based on contextual integration and physical placement i.e. where it is on the screen, how long is it on the screen, what is the size? Versus is it being mentioned? Is there branding? Is it being used? Then they combine the two for a score that links back to a spot price and gives you a total price. But it’s not fool proof and the initial evaluations for DFS were unrealistic.

In your opinion, what would a ‘best practice’ product placement look like?

There needs to be a natural synergy and the more you capitalize on that synergy and build the association, the better. It’s not something that can be forced. It’s got to be considered. And it’s got to be understood that it’s a risk as well. It’s a new world so you’re not going to get the ROI in the same way. There’s going to be a lot more intangibles associated with it rather than finite media value.

It’s a chicken and egg thing at the moment. People want to know why it works and how it works but there’s not enough research out there to prove either of those points so there is no conclusive evidence that paying all this money actually does anything or shifts whatever metrics people want to shift.

The exciting thing is that if you get it right, you get a much deeper engagement with your brand. If it’s a brand that people like and it’s a programme that people like and you build that synergy between the two, I don’t think you can beat it.