Product placement in HE

Product placement is in the news at the moment, with the leaked announcement that the ban on that form of advertising in UK television is to be lifted and Liam mentioning it as part of the changes underway in the television world in his talk this morning. Obviously, commercial broadcasters like ITV – faced with plunged advertising revenues – are very keen to open up a potential new source of funding, and advertisers are apparently keen to hawk their products and services in this way. And it’s the most obvious solution to the increasing ‘skip the adverts’ problem, which the shift to Internet-enabled TV is making far worse. If the adverts are deeply integrated in to the programme, you can’t skip them,  you can’t edit them out, and you might not even notice they’re there.

Which leads on to the the two huge issues with this sort of advertising: transparency and editorial independence. Will people know or realise that the judges on X Factor are taking regular sips of Coke because the Coca Cola Company paid handsomely for them to do so?  How can broadcasters possibly keep editorial decisions and advertising decisions apart when the advert and the programme content happen at the same time?

Those aren’t often seen as big issues for Higher Education. But actually, I think they are.

We make extensive use of branded products and services in our offerings to students and staff – particularly educational technologies.  Books, journals, VLEs, computers, all sorts of things.

Routinely we get an educational discount for this stuff – which is really product placement.  The main differences I can see is that we generally get paid far less than the products themselves are worth for advertising them to our captive audience of students, and we don’t usually recognise the transaction for what it is.

(We also cheerfully take people’s money and in return name buildings, or Centres, or endowed Chairs after them – but there the transaction is recognised as sponsorship by everyone involved, and the deals are made accordingly.)

The twin challenges of transparency and editorial independence (or pedagogical independence if you prefer) apply just as much to these transactions as they do in the world of TV.

I’m definitely not saying we should avoid all such deals, or only ever use open source technologies in our teaching.  (Though that’s not a bad starting assumption.)

But I do think we need to be aware of the influence that the ‘educational discount’ has on what we do as educators, and be very careful we’re not unwittingly turning ourselves into corporate shills – and doing it on the cheap.  Even when we’re using ‘free’ (as-in-beer) products, we need to remember that free-at-the-point-of-use from a commercial outfit emphatically does not mean they’re not getting something valuable from us.

More personal media

This isn’t remotely a new observation, but after my musings about the more powerful reach of new media, I was strongly reminded this morning that social networking is more powerful because it’s more personal.

Christian Payne, aka Our Man Inside, aka @Documentally, is a freelance photographer and new media person, who puts a lot of his life and work online using a whole variety of text, audio and video tools.  We’ve met in real life several times, but are more in contact online.  This morning, he posted this AudioBoo:

[which I can’t seem to get to appear as an embed in WordPress in this margin of my time, sorry] … and which I heard, after being alerted via Twitter, within a few minutes of the happy event.  Oddly enough, none of the mainstream news outlets carried this story.  And why should they?  About 2000 or so other babies were born in Britain in the last 24h (at a wild order-of-magnitude guess), so it’s not really news in that sense.

But to a specific, small group of people this was the biggest and best news of the day.  And this snap is probably not Christian’s most technically brilliant shot ever, nor likely to be his biggest earner, but I’ll bet it’s one of the ones he cares most about:

The news of a newborn’s arrival, and a picture of their face, and the sound of their first cry … carried to all the people who care about them.  That personalisation and relevance is part of the magic of new technology.  It’s new and it’s very, very old at the same time.

Welcome to the world, @minimentally.

Freesat (not from Sky)

Today’s news in the UK media landscape is that Freesat has launched.  Not to be confused with the very-similar proposition Freesat from Sky (launched in 2004).

Both are free-to-air digital satellite services with no ongoing subscription.  You need a satellite dish and a set-top box (or box built-in to your TV).  Freesat from Sky costs £150 all-in, for dish, box and installation.  Freesat (from the BBC) costs about £50 for a basic box, and about £80 for a dish and installation, depending on all sorts of things.  Or you can get an HD box for about £150 (HD services are the only big difference in channels I can see).  It’s all very rough and a bit confusing as an offering.

It’ll be very interesting to see what happens with Freesat.  At a glance, it seems the wrong offering (it’s more expensive than Freeview, and more confusing than Freeview or Freesat from Sky) at the wrong time (Freeview has such a huge market share) in the wrong market (consisting solely of those who want digital TV but can’t get Freeview and for some reason don’t want Freesat from Sky).  An odd thing for the BBC to be backing.

But we shall see.  Maybe the HD thing is the key: free-to-air HD (BBC HD and ITV HD) is the one significant thing that Freesat has that Sky and Freeview don’t, and it’s also the thing that Sky are complaining about.  Hold on, there’s another thing it has – Freesat also has the imprimatur of the BBC and ITV, which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed – I’m sure the UK take up of DAB and Freeview are largely down to the extensive advertising campaigns mounted by the BBC.

(Other perspectives welcome: It’s hard for me to judge this sort of stuff on “what appeals to me” because – like Clay Shirky and John Naughton – I watch hardly any TV.  And the TV I do watch is often lower res than plain old TV since it’s via the BBC iPlayer.)