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Slippery soap. Has Coronation Street made a mess of product placement?

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In November 2011, Coronation Street made UK television history when it became the first primetime show to secure a product placement deal with an advertiser. The unbranded ATM machine in the corner shop (prop: Dev Alahan), suddenly became a Nationwide ATM. We weren't told whether the poor punters of Wetherfield would be surcharged a couple of quid for using it, but there it was, a big old logo sitting squarely in shot, for which the building society paid handsomely.

The actual fees involved were kept under wraps, but it was safely estimated this sort of exposure would cost a brand around £330,000 a week. Nationwide must have figured this was a worthwhile investment as they've extended the arrangement and the ATM is still visible.
When it became available to advertisers a couple of years ago, there were high hopes for product placement - but the device hasn't really set the world alight. Emmerdale has a tie-in with something called 'Welcome To Yorkshire' and 'This Morning' plonked a branded coffee machine on its set. But other than those few examples, the double 'P' icon remains something of a rarity. What product placement has managed to do, is stir up something of a Coronation Street scandal.

Controversy is stalking the cobbled streets of the soap right now. Recently, I related the story of Channel Four's Dispatches programme, which was gearing up to expose some 'Street' cast members. They are alleged to have taken freebies in exchange for promotional tweeting (that investigation has now been cleared for broadcast, by the way). Then there's the much more serious case of William Roache's court appearances.  And now, here comes a suggestion that producers have smuggled some product placement into the script, as a favour to a new recruit and without flagging it up as advertising.

The problem stems from a sequence featuring the character Roy Cropper. He was seen explaining he was on the phone to a theatre's box office, trying to obtain tickets for a show called 'Midnight Tango'. This is a real event starring 'Strictly Come Dancing' star Flavia Cacace. When the scene was broadcast, 'Midnight Tango' was just a day away from opening in Manchester.  Flavia herself was most appreciative, tweeting the message  “Thank you @itvcorrie for our @VFMidnightTango mention, can’t believe it but thank you xx.”

This wouldn't have been a breach of any rules if that double 'P' had been displayed at the start of the Monday night episode. But it wasn't. It has also been noted that Flavia's fiancé, the actor Jimi Mistry, is to join Coronation Street very soon.

It's entirely possible an administrative error caused the absence of the double 'P' but ITV are actually claiming something else.  Their statement asserts “The episode script was written long before Jimi Mistry was even approached. It is untrue to suggest there is any connection between the two. All episodes are cleared through compliance before transmission."

Actually, the broadcaster has neatly sidestepped the issue. By focusing on the connection to Mistry (which is, in all probability, a co-incidence), they've managed to ignore the accusation they plugged a stage-show without announcing the placement of a commercial message in the script.
Does any of this matter? Well, it certainly does to ITV. Coronation Street is their flagship programme, and this is a difficulty they could well do without. Back in 2011, it was reckoned product placement could be worth as much as £9m annually to the network. However, as the practice has yet to gain the anticipated traction, this mess will do nothing to persuade advertisers it's a route worth taking.

In truth, if product placement is to become a commonplace revenue stream for the commercial channels, best practice needs to be clear and obvious. When a high-profile programme like 'Coronation Street'  fails to establish a workably transparent model, it doesn't bode well for the concept's future. So don't expect that double 'P' to become more widespread anytime soon. 

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant

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