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.