As not seen on TV

By continuing to ban product placement on British television, the government is fighting a battle that was lost years ago

I am a victim of product placement. Looking for a suitable substance in which to drown my sorrows the other day, I discovered a bottle of Lillet. Even now I'm not really sure what it is, nor how to pronounce its name correctly. But I do have it on the good authority of a barman in Quantum of Solace that it's not a vermouth.

And rarely, to my mind, has a product been better placed. Lillet is delicious, both by itself and mixed with appropriately sorrow-drowning quantities of gin and vodka. Moreover, as I am told by the man who until recently was responsible for importing the drink into this country, sales rose by up to 500% when Daniel Craig was spotted drinking it in Casino Royale. But if Lillet's new distributors wanted further to widen their excellent drink's appeal by listing it among the aperitifs on offer in, say, the Rovers Return, they would have to think again.

The recent decision by the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, to maintain a ban on product placement in British television has been widely reported and fairly univocally criticised. Appealing to the commercial television sector's better judgement, he suggested a need to preserve Britain's reputation for the high quality of its broadcasting.

One appreciates that a cabinet minister doesn't have much time to watch television. Even so, you'd be hard put to miss the fact that all the commercially-funded shows to which the epithet "high quality" can reasonably be applied are imports from America. In the US, product placement is so common that a show like Seinfeld could find some of their best material by centring whole episodes round products like Juju fruits and Junior Mints. Commercial investment in product placement in US television has in fact for most of the last decade been higher than in Hollywood where, ever since Hershey's turned a multi-million profit from coaxing ET out of his closet back in 1982 with Reese's Pieces, consumer industries have been hammering away on studio doors.

And does it matter? Not really. Brand names are so much part of the fabric of social life that cinema and television imitate that it jars more to obscure them from camera than include them casually in focus.

But Burnham's misguided decision isn't just bad, even disastrous, news for ITV and the other commercial broadcasters. It is symptomatic of a national lack of self-awareness, and of the way the present government so often manipulates this to fight pretend battles in wars that were lost well over two decades ago.

Indeed, there is something uniquely British about the way we manage to combine having one of the most (and most disastrously) deregulated economies in the world, the most respected and highly developed advertising industry, and still uphold the delusion that we can protect our society from damaging commercial interests. It's on a par with the way we insist on our right to free education and healthcare without offering to pay the kind of taxes that would fund them adequately.

Brand names are a central part of the way most British citizens communicate their values and tastes. They are no less empty than many other, less obviously commercial signifiers such as taste in music, food and, albeit at a stretch, morals. The idea of branding in fact has a near monopoly not just on the language of business and marketing, but on pop-psychology and the creative industries. Lifestyle choices, no less that TV shows, artists and musicians, are understood as brands, and very well understood in those terms, however appalling that may seem.

Indeed, contemporary practical conceptions of what it means to be free are so bound up with ideas of consumer choice that brands are among the most powerful aspects of our sense of identity. At least in the US most people are aware, in all honesty, that part of what they want to save in protecting the American way of life is the right to mosey on down to the mall. In Britain, on the other hand, we just need to wake up and smell the coffee. With luck, if we act fast enough, it won't be Nescafe.

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