Product placement enters the theatre

CHOCOLATE ANYONE?: Lisa Chappell stars in the children's production of Bad Jelly The Witch.
CHOCOLATE ANYONE?: Lisa Chappell stars in the children's production of Bad Jelly The Witch.

An embedded plug in a children's theatre production has put chocolate brand Whittaker's under the spotlight for the second time in a week.

In the process it has also revealed a grey area in the advertising industry's code of practice and growing unease among actors that their names and performances are being exploited and scripts adulterated for the benefit of sponsors.

The target of concern was the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC) production of Badjelly the Witch that appeared to contain an embedded advertisement for chocolate company Whittaker's, also the "production sponsor" for the show.

What appeared to be a scripted plug for Whittaker's was sung by Mudwiggle the super-strong worm, including the tag that Whittaker's has been producing chocolate "since 1896".

The ATC said the plug was "ad-libbed", and "not scripted".

Holly Whittaker from Whittaker's - which found itself making headlines this week for its L&P-bottle damaging stunt in Paeroa - said the chocolate company had played no part in the plugs, but that it had given the production some chocolate, which was used as a prize for the best-dressed child in the audience.

Last week, TV viewers were treated to a new high in product placement when contestants in the X Factor talent show took turns praising a sponsor's product and one of the contest prizes, a car.

But the idea this form of advertising might be penetrating children's theatre last week caused concern in the Auckland theatre scene that a new advertising Rubicon had been crossed.

It's a concern shared by actors' union Actors' Equity, which is currently working on a new draft for a standard actor's contract. Spokesman Phil Darken said a section in the draft does cover actors' rights in relation to product placement.

Darken said the issue had been raised by actors, especially in relation to TV shows like Go Girls and Shortland Street with actors concerned they are being personally linked to commercial enterprises.

"There has to be a limit to all things," he said.

But the Badjelly case appears to be one advertising laws and regulations were not designed to consider.

The Fair Trading Act would only apply if advertisements were misleading.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the ad industry's self-regulatory body, provides standards through its code of ethics, which predate the development of product placement. The first code requires advertisements to be "clearly distinguishable as such, whatever their form and whatever the medium used".

A product placement that is a commercial

arrangement that is not "clearly distinguishable" would appear to breach that rule, but Hilary Souter, chief executive of the ASA, said the ASA would make a decision once a complaint was made.

Souter said it might be found that product placement in a US show such as X-Factor might be considered clearly distinguishable if sufficient people in New Zealand recognised that product placement was a part and parcel of the show.

But there has only ever been one complaint - about alcohol being shown in the film Sione's Wedding which was found not to have been a product placement at all.

Souter said the lack of complaints indicates New Zealanders do not see product placement as an issue, though she acknowledges it might also be that they don't understand it, or that they do not know they can complain about it.

While product placement in entertainment for grown-ups carries one set of moral dilemmas, product placement to the next generation of consumers, children, carries others.

The Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) defends advertising to children, saying on its website that it plays an important part in their development of adult faculties to critically interpret advertisements.

"There are major benefits from advertising, from first-rate children's programming to unprecedented access to technology, knowledge and communication tools. However, children also need to learn to decipher and critically interpret the range of communications, including marketing communications, around them," it says.

That drew scoffs from Tom Agee, a senior lecturer and marketing specialist at the University of Auckland Business School.

"Give me a break," Agee said. "Tell me how in hell that is going to happen?"

Agee said research shows how undiscerning children, especially young children, are when it comes to advertising.

Ben Wooliscroft, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Otago, said one of the concerns about advertising to children is that parents are unaware of the amount of advertising coming their kids' way.

Wooliscroft said there was a "moral argument" for the disclosure of product placement as it was only successful if people do not notice it and functions on a subconscious level.

Without that disclosure, people are left guessing when they see a product in a production.

Kim Ellett, a director of New Zealand's only dedicated product placement company, Exposure, said he is earning a living placing products in shows and charging fees to companies based on the exposure they receive.

There are often contracts covering how a product can be used, he said.

A mobile phone company, for example, would stipulate characters could only find themselves unable to connect through a fault of their own, such as a low battery, and not because of poor network coverage.

Ellett described most deals as not so much advertising as "a quid pro quo".

Exactly what Badjelly author, comedian writer Spike Milligan, would think is unclear.

He died in 2002.

However, in May an advertisement from the 1960s was rediscovered featuring Milligan spruiking Nestle Golden Crunch chocolate.

Sunday Star Times