Moral stance or PR exercise?

Should sponsors be surprised when reality TV courts controversy?

While few would predict that Jade Goody would dominate international political debate Big Brother is no stranger to controversy. In fact it is this controversy that has ensured the continued commercial success of the show and its commercial partners. The carefully-orchestrated decision of its sponsor of four years - Carphone Warehouse - to suspend its sponsorship of the show has ensured the brand reams of lucrative PR coverage - but at what cost?

One industry source says that 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, its disingenuous to say the least.'

In an unprecedented move a number of brands also choose to pull advertising from the advertising breaks themselves. 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 Salman Amin, President of PepsiCo UK, said "We have withdrawn our advertising during Big Brother, because we felt that the broadcast of behaviour inside the house was not aligned with our company's values."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 include moneysupermarket.com and Cow & Gate, while United Biscuits and Cobra Beer have pulled out of the show as suppliers.

Ultimately it is an issue for Ofcom - not advertisers - to determine what is in the realms of taste and decency. Dan Holliday, executive creative director of the Fish Can Sing says: ‘I don't understand the rationale of pulling out of the ad breaks - its smacks of jumping on the bandwagon for a quick hit of publicity.'

The move also raises important issues around the need to maintain editorial independence, while Channel 4 says it was in constant dialogue with Carphone Warehouse - ultimately the 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. Namely just how real - warts and all - we want reality TV to be. ‘The fact is that up until now there have been unpleasant episodes in all Big Brother's and the sponsors have been keen to capitalise on the headlines and audience figures.'

There are no shortages of examples of the reality TV format causing controversy. While eyebrows were raised when the show became a topic in Prime Ministers question time just last year the Australian prime minister had called for the show to be axed following a sexual assault live on air.

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

Carphone Warehouse's PR agency Freud is understandably tight lipped on the handling of the decision and the company is at pains not to appear to be profiting from the controversy. PR guru Mark Borkowski says the move was a great publicity stunt. ‘Channel 4 were not taking control of the situation - and Carphone Warehouse's move took the moral high ground and placed them at the centre of the debate in the right way.'

Ratings for this series of Big Brother were relatively lacklustre until the race row erupted - culminating in 7.8 million viewers tuning in to see Jade's eviction. One broadcast director went so far to say that the controversy was actually a good thing for the show - ensuring it became must-watch TV once more.

John Allert, chief executive of Interbrand, says as a brand proposition Big Brother is hovering around its best before date. ‘Big Brother has always been happy to court controversy and in many ways that's what attracted brands to it in the first place - but sadly it's descended into the low brow and brands are falling out of love with it.'

Sponsorships strength - that it aligns the value of the show with the brand - can also be a weakness. Matt Hales, planning director at Octagon, says there is always a risk with aligning with a celebrity or a reality show ‘They have to be willing to take the rough with the smooth and brands are aware of this. For example Coca Cola is aware that by the nature of Wayne Rooney's character he could get himself into sticky situations but they choose to take the risk it's the same with Big Brother.'

As Channel 4's cash cow defending the Big Brother brand is of paramount importance to the broadcaster. Agency estimates put the spot revenue for Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother in 2006 at £105m, making the show about 16% of its annual spot revenues, excluding the revenue from voting and sponsorship.

Channel 4 says it has been inundated with requests from advertisers to sponsor the show, while a number of brands have sought to advertise around it. However, Lawrence Munday, founding partner of sponsorship specialist Drum PHD, believes the media frenzy surrounding the show will negatively impact the cost of sponsorship. ‘The fact is that there will be less brands willing to take this level of risk,' he says. Brands which do take the risk - as Carphone Warehouse has learnt - cannot be surprised if they face a backlash.

Looking ahead Mark Bowkowski says that ultimately if you stretch the format so much its inevitable that something will break and the price for this is to high. ‘I think there will be a casualty of this kind of fame,' he warns. Some would argue this happened long ago as early as 1997- after being voted off Swedish television's Expedition: Robinson one of the earliest reality TV formats, contestant Sinisa Savija committed suicide.

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