By Steve Pratt and Emma Croager
Most adults won’t be familiar with the music video You Make Me Feel by Cobra Starship, as it has much greater appeal to young people. There is little doubt however that the overwhelming majority of adults would quickly identify the product placement in the video, as seen in screenshot below. The commercial intent of the product placement in this example is self-evident. Despite this, it is not considered to be an “alcohol beverage advertisement” by the Australian Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC). There are a number of concerns with the current self-regulation scheme in Australia, but most equivalent international codes do not cover product placement either, as detailed by ABAC.
This rather obvious example serves two purposes: it highlights the shortcomings in current regulations, not just in Australia; and it provides insight into how easily and often young people are exposed to product placement.
To be clear, product placement is advertising. The European Union define product placement as “…any form of audio-visual commercial communication consisting of the inclusion of or reference to a product, a service or the trade mark thereof so that it is featured within a programme, in return for payment or for similar consideration”. Like all other types of advertising, product placement has a number of purposes. The most explicit of these is to encourage consumers to buy more of the product. But product placement has a more subtle capacity to change community attitudes and norms. It is not just paid product placement that has the potential to influence though, unpaid incidental product placement is just as concerning and harder to regulate.
Endorsement of alcohol use by celebrities, like the musicians and actors who feature in music videos, has a substantial influence on the attitudes and behaviours of young people. Similarly, tobacco promotion in popular media is a significant contributor to the uptake of smoking by the young. For example, teenagers whose favourite stars smoke on screen are up to 16 times more likely to think favourably of smoking, and are more likely to smoke than those whose favourite stars do not smoke.
Young people need protection from advertising. It has long been known that children and adolescents are more vulnerable to advertising than adults. Many countries recognise this vulnerability and have regulations that restrict advertising to children in addition to any restrictions on alcohol and tobacco advertising that may exist. But regulations can easily be circumvented.
In Australia, Saturday morning is a time when children often watch television and there are broadcasting restrictions to ensure that the content is suitable. Two (Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Code of Practice) of the three (Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA) Codes of Practice is the exception) television codes of practice for Australia make explicit reference to weekend mornings between 0600 and 1000 being reserved for “general” viewing, in other words suitable for children. All of these codes require discretion or care when portraying legal drug use during programs with a “General” classification.
There is cause for concern then, when almost one-third of the videos shown on television on Saturday morning, during a designated children’s viewing time, contain a reference to alcohol or tobacco and the vast majority of those references were pro-use. Alcohol references are more common (by about four times) than tobacco references, most likely reflecting the declining popularity of smoking among young people.
Our young people deserve better than this. It is clear that product placement is an effective and pervasive advertising technique, but is currently unregulated in Australia. There is an urgent and acknowledged need to expand the definition of advertising to include all promotional and marketing activities, not just product placement. On the other hand, parents should also be able to trust the classification of television programs, and that their children aren’t being encouraged to drink and smoke every time they watch programs deemed suitable for a general audience.
Steve (Iain) Pratt is Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia and Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University. He is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) with more than ten years’ experience in public health. You can follow him on Twitter @Pratt_Steve. Dr Emma Croager is Education & Research Services Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia; and Senior Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University, Western Australia. Since returning to Australia in 2006, she has worked in chronic disease prevention and public health, with a specific focus on lifestyle risk factors for chronic disease, and rural and remote health. You can follow her on Twitter @emmacroager. They are the co-authors, along with Rebecca Johnson and Natalie Khoo, of the paper ‘Legal drug content in music video programs shown on Australian television on Saturday mornings‘, which is available to read for free on the Alcohol and Alcoholism journal website.
Alcohol and Alcoholism publishes papers on biomedical, psychological and sociological aspects of alcoholism and alcohol research, provided that they make a new and significant contribution to knowledge in the field.
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Image credit: Still taken from the official video for You Make Me Feel by Cobra Starship.