Magazine article Marketing

Media Analysis: Moral Stance or PR Exercise?

Magazine article Marketing

Media Analysis: Moral Stance or PR Exercise?

Article excerpt

Reality TV and controversy go hand in hand, so how indignant can backers be when it goes wrong, asks Nicola Clark.

While few would have predicted that Jade Goody could dominate international political debate, Big Brother is no stranger to controversy. In fact, it is its very controversy that has ensured the continued commercial success of the programme and its partners. So the carefully orchestrated decision of Carphone Warehouse to take a stand against what it saw as racism and bullying in the house by suspending its four-year sponsorship of the show raises the question of just how truly shocked it can be the turn of events.

One industry source says Carphone Warehouse's decision was a straightforward PR exercise. 'It was a bizarre situation, as controversy is what Big Brother is all about - everyone knows that - and then you get a phone sales company preaching the moral way. It's disingenuous to say the least.'

In an unprecedented move, a number of brands also chose to pull ads from the advertising breaks, the biggest of which was PepsiCo. Salman Amin, president of PepsiCo UK, said: 'We have withdrawn our advertising during Big Brother because we felt that the broadcast of behaviour inside the house was not aligned with our company's values.'

Other brands to have axed ads include and Cow & Gate, while United Biscuits and Cobra Beer have pulled out as suppliers.

Ultimately, it is Ofcom, not advertisers, that determines what is in the realms of taste and decency. So, what has driven this sudden attack of conscience? As Dan Holliday, executive creative director of the Fish Can Sing, says: 'I don't understand the rationale of pulling out of the ad breaks. It smacks of jumping on the bandwagon for a quick hit of publicity.'

Carphone's decision also raises the issue of editorial independence While Channel 4 says it was in constant dialogue with the phone retailer, ultimately a sponsor has no control over content.

Dominic Burns, vice-president of licensing at Fremantlemedia, says the controversy has raised important issues for both advertisers and reality TV producers, including how 'real' reality TV should be. 'The fact is that, up until now, there have been unpleasant episodes in all Big Brothers, and the sponsors have been keen to capitalise on the headlines and audience figures.'

There is no shortage of examples of the format causing contention. While eyebrows were raised when Jade's rant at her housemate became a topic during the Prime Minister's Question Time, only last year Tony Blair's equivalent in Australia called for the show to be axed after an alleged sexual assault live on air.

Steve Martin, managing director of M&C Saatchi Sports & Entertainment, says brands therefore go into these sponsorship deals with their eyes open - and Carphone is no exception. 'With a reality format, controversy is the nature of the beast. Carphone Warehouse was clearly looking at coming out of the format and this was its escape clause.'

With Carphone at pains not to appear to be profiting from the controversy, its PR agency, Freud, is understandably quiet on the handling of the decision. Yet PR guru Mark Borkowski describes its decision as 'a great publicity stunt'. 'Channel 4 was not taking control of the situation and Carphone's move took the moral high ground and placed it at the centre of the debate in the right way.'

Ratings for this series of Big Brother were lacklustre until the race row erupted, culminating in 7. …

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