Toying with the Audience

Strange that in the hundreds of Peacock hours devoted to whether the BBC should carry ads or not there was no serious or sustained attempt to say what constitutes an advertisement, and consequently no ability to recognize that the BBC is already – whether it admits it or not – engaged in various types of what could be described as commercial advertising.

Peacock, along with the rest of us, seemed to assume that the distinction between ads and programmes, between sales messages and entertainment, is clear-cut and unproblematic. Events in medialand over the past year or so render this assumption untenable and obsolete.

Thus, to take the most innocuous example, the long-running refusal of the independent TV companies in this country to pay for transmitting music promos rests on their contention – which no one denies – that promos are ads whose sole function is to publicise the music they feature. The BBC on the other hand has agreed to pay the music companies whenever they transmit promos. Such payment in no way alters the advertising status of the material transmitted. It means simply that the BBC is both advertising for the record companies and footing the bill.

Or consider the mushrooming phenomenon in the movie business known as ‘product placement’ which permeates recent films such as ET, Rambo, Back to the Future, The Exterminator, Ghostbusters, and many others. If the characters in these movies just happen to be consuming some named commodity – drinking Budweiser or driving a Cadillac or using a Toyota video-recorder or munching Dunkin Donuts – if will be because the makers of that commodity paid a considerable sum to the film’s producers to place it there. Such product endorsement, carefully thought out and competitively bid for, is obviously an undeclared (and by all accounts highly effective) form of advertising. Opposition to it in this country – not least from sections of the advertising world – on the grounds that it slyly and covertly blurs the distinction between promotion and programme will not, however, prevent its occurrence on British TV, since there is no policy of excluding movies that use product placement.

Market logic suggests the next step. Instead of getting film characters to endorse the product, go straight to the centre and made cartoons in which the characters are the product. The film will then be a feature-length commercial persuading viewers to buy the characters. But who is going to be artless enough to watch such a film and be fooled into believing it is anything other than an ad whose purpose is to sell them something? The answer, the most gullible consumers the market can locate, is young children. And, one must suppose, given the enormous box office success of the Care Bear Movie and My Little Pony, large numbers of scarcely less gullible accompanying adults.

The very existence of such feature-length commercials for toy products, ‘animated sales catalogues’ as one American commentator calls them, posing as entertainment, makes a nonsense of attempts to legislate about broadcasting on the basis of any simple, unexamined distinction between advertising and programming, and raises a number of serious issues about advertising practice; issues which take on a particular urgency when such ad-programmes are shown on TV.

And, indeed, the growing proliferation of toy-based ad-programmes on American TV – He-Man, Go-Bots, Thundercats, She-Ra, Rainbow-Brite, Transformers, Care Bears – has created, over the past two years, a concerned and increasingly angry US pressure group, Action for Children’s Television. In May 1985 ACT submitted a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission that such ‘programmes’ (produced by film companies where editorial control is in the hands of the toy manufacturers) should be ‘logged as commercial material’ and, moreover, the showing of them should be ruled as inconsistent with the Commission’s own regulations. The FCC argued that a programme having ‘commercial goals’ was not in itself a controlling feature, and that if ACT’s complaints were upheld then no programme with ‘related product licensing would be possible…and even the programmes such as Sesame Street…would have to be eliminated from broadcast station schedules’. The Commission, in a determinedly Reaganite judgement, sided with the toy manufacturers, and denied both requests.

Neither was the FCC particularly disturbed by the fact that companies like Lorimar Telepictures, who distribute such programmes as Dallas as well as ad-programmes like Thundercats, regularly offer broadcasting stations a percentage of the toy profits in their region if they agree to screen the appropriate toy films. ACT, who maintain that this is conclusive proof, if any were needed, that the films are pure ads (and are seen as such by the toy-makers), are now trying to bypass the FCC with a direct petition to the US Congress to have all ad-programmes interrupted by announcements which declare their commercial purpose.

On the face of it – as presented in the advance publicity material – Thundercats looks like another load of typically violent and (one is encouraged to suppose) harmless American animated rubbish: cat-like goodies such as Jaga the wise, Tygra the invisible, Cheetera the quick, Panthro the deadly, all in the service of their young lord Lion-O from the doomed planet of Thundra, battle evil mutants led by the reptilian Slithe in alliance with the devil-priest Mumm-Ra…with the ‘spin-off’ toy products already out there in the shops.

But the products, as we know, came before the characters whose spun-off copies they are supposed to be. Against this background the BBC’s purchase of Thundercats from Lorimar Telepictures and its intention to screen it as part of children’s TV in the New Year is both puzzling and disturbing.

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