New rules on product placement

17 February, 2011

Product placement involves an advertiser paying a broadcaster to have its brand, products, services and / or trade marks included in a programme. Broadcasters have to adhere to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which currently prohibits this form of advertising. However, on 28 February 2011, a new section of the Broadcasting Code will be implemented which will, for the first time, allow product placement in UK-produced programmes.


Certain restrictions on product placement will remain in place so that programmes do not become distorted advertising mechanisms and there will be restrictions on different types of products and programmes to which the new rules will apply.


The principle of maintaining a separation between advertising and editorial material has been ubiquitous in communications legislation since 1955, when the first television commercial was aired. This has been seen as a fundamental doctrine in maintaining broadcasters’ editorial independence.


The “separation principle” in the current Broadcasting Code aims to ensure that audiences are not misled by marketing strategies, such as product placement. This principle has understandably been forced to evolve and move with the times as a result of commercial developments, and has become more diluted over the years. Despite the current prohibition on product placement in UK-produced television programmes, UK audiences have already been exposed to this advertising technique, as it is frequently used in American produced programmes and films which are viewed in the UK. 


The removal of the prohibition on product placement on 28 February 2011 will signal the end of the “separation principle” and will see a move towards reliance on transparency for audiences regarding advertisers’ involvement in the programme to protect audiences from surreptitious advertising.


The introduction of product placement will not be without restraint. It will be permitted in films, television series (including soaps), entertainment programmes and sport programmes. However, it will not be permitted in news programmes, religious programmes, consumer advice programmes, current affair programmes or children’s programmes. The new rules will also place further constraints on product placement, forbidding product placement of the following products, services or trade marks:
 1) Cigarettes or other tobacco products;
 2) alcoholic drinks;
 3) gambling;
 4) baby milk;
 5) all medical products;
 6) foods or drinks high in fat, slat or sugar (“HFSS”); and
 7) any product, service or trade mark that is not allowed to be advertised on television.


The introduction of the new rules on 28 February 2011 will also see the introduction of a product placement logo (shown below) which must be displayed when a programme features product placement. This logo must:

  • Appear for a minimum of three seconds at the start and end of programmes, and after any commercial breaks;
  • Be placed in one of the four corners of the screen;
  • Not conflict with channel idents; and
  • Meet minimum size requirements – a spokesperson from Ofcom has indicated this is to mean approximately the “equivalent size of a channel logo”.

Broadcasters will be able to slightly adapt the logo according to the lightness or darkness of the background it is being placed on.

Before the end of February, there will be an awareness campaign directing consumers to the Ofcom website for more information, and broadcasters will be expected to air the awareness advertisement at least a week before the product placement appears on screen.


The changes to the Broadcasting Code will also allow sponsors to product place in programmes they are sponsoring, and for the sponsor’s logo to appear in the programme’s credits briefly.


There have also been changes to rules relating to “paid for” references to products and services when broadcast on the radio. These rules came into force on 20 December 2010 and liberalise the rules on references to brands in exchange for payment, allowing commercial references to be incorporated within the programme itself, and not just in the sponsorship credits around programmes. Protections are also in place for radio listeners too, whereby broadcasters will have to ensure that listeners are informed of any commercial arrangements that result in on-air references.


A key principle of the new rules for both television and radio is that broadcasters must maintain editorial independence and control over programming; and placed products cannot be promoted or endorsed or featured in an unduly prominent way. This places a further restriction on product placement and provides scope for broadcasters to exercise their discretion, although this will place an extra burden on broadcasters who are obliged to retain their editorial independence whilst trying to maximise this new revenue stream.

Reviewed in 2015