That’s advertainment: reality TV and product placement

Sophie Benson explores the insidious role of unethical advertising in reality TV – and in the offscreen careers of its stars

December 17, 2020 · 8 min read
Love Island stars advertising various products Former Love Island stars advertising various products

It used to be that we tolerated advert breaks in order to watch our favourite TV shows. If you really didn’t like them you could press mute or go off and make a cup of tea, returning just in time for the familiar ident to appear on screen and the entertainment to continue. However, there is no skipping the ads when they’re part and parcel of your favourite show.

Profit placement

Since Ofcom confirmed it would be allowed on UK TV shows from 2011, product placement has flourished within reality TV, where there’s no veneer of fantasy to break. A logo here or there is just a reflection of what we’re exposed to everyday anyway, so why not make some extra advertising revenue from it?

Although it hasn’t escaped criticism completely – a barrage of Twitter criticism was aimed at The Only Way is Essex in 2017 when the stars of the show were shown repeatedly making Visa-branded contactless payments with their phones – product placement has broadly become an accepted part of the scenery.

Love Island is perhaps the most shining example. Stars of recent series have been kitted out by fast-fashion e-commerce brands including Missguided and I Saw It First, blow-dried their hair with Dyson hair dryers, styled it with VO5 products, texted on Samsung phones and prevented sunburn with Superdrug sunscreen – all right in front of the cameras.

While clothes and hair products may slip easily into the background, their appearances are anything but passive. To ensure viewers engage with – and buy from – the fashion sponsors, Love Island allows viewers to shop the contestants’ looks, supplied for free by the brand, directly from the ‘Island Style’ section of the app.


It’s a strategy that pays off. The 2018 sponsor Missguided saw a 40 per cent sales increase when the programme aired and a 300-500 per cent increase in sales of items worn on screen, according to Mintel. The 2019 sponsor I Saw It First saw a 67 per cent increase in sales month on month, Drapers reported at the time.

Ethical lines

When product placement was first permitted, Ofcom imposed a number of restrictions and guidelines, which included a list of products that could not be placed. Tobacco products and prescription medicines were out of bounds, as were ‘alcoholic drinks, gambling products, all other types of medicines, food and drink that is high in fat, salt or sugar, baby milk and products that can’t be advertised (such as guns and other weapons)’.

The list of banned items toes certain ethical lines that we’ve widely accepted. But the host of sponsors that have become synonymous with reality TV series bring up a new set of ethical concerns that reach beyond consumer wellbeing.

In recent years, thanks to several high-profile exposés coupled with shifting consumer focus, the fast-fashion industry has been taken to task for its constant disregard for human rights and its negative effects on the environment.

A 2017 Dispatches investigation, for instance, found that Missguided’s supplier factories were paying their UK garment workers as little as £3 per hour. Other brands implicated included New Look, Boohoo and River Island, which had previously collaborated with former Love Island host Caroline Flack. It wasn’t the first indication of worrying conditions for garment workers. Awareness of their safety was already heightened after a 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka that killed 1,138 people, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Labels belonging to brands such as Primark and Matalan were found amidst the rubble; Primark soon faced a widespread boycott.

The host of sponsors that have become synonymous with reality TV series bring up a new set of ethical concerns

The Covid-19 pandemic thrust the mistreatment of garment workers further into the limelight as numerous fast fashion brands, including Primark, Arcadia (the fashion group behind Topshop) and Urban Outfitters, cancelled or refused to pay for billions of pounds worth of orders, as spotlighted by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) Covid-19 brand tracker, leaving garment workers with no pay. (Some brands have since responded to pressure and paid what they owe, the WRC reports.)

And, as the climate crisis intensifies, fast fashion’s promotion of a buy-and-dispose mindset sits awkwardly against efforts to curb overconsumption, as approximately 150 billion garments are produced every year, according to the World Economic Forum. The likes of Missguided and I Saw It First add hundreds of products to their sites every day, often made from energy intensive, highly polluting materials such as polyester.

The costs of fast fashion

By banning the placement of alcohol, gambling products, cigarettes, and fatty foods, Ofcom sought to avoid promoting what are considered to be unhealthy lifestyles. The logic, presumably, was that viewers emulate and aspire to what they see on TV, so to allow beloved TV stars to smoke pack after pack of cigarettes, for instance, would be to endorse the public following suit. It could be argued, then, that allowing reality TV stars to wear a brand-new outfit each day encourages viewers to do the same. And that signposting viewers towards the checkout to buy a new outfit after every episode tacitly endorses hyper-consumption.

The unhealthy side effects of fast fashion may not be as recognisably tangible as those of smoking or drinking too much alcohol but they’re there if you know where to look. The ever-increasing turnover of trends means that the average garment is only worn between seven and ten times before being disposed of, contributing to the 350,000 tonnes of clothing that goes to landfill in the UK alone each year. An estimated £30 billion of unworn clothing hangs in our wardrobes and yet we buy more, as each purchase satisfies our craving for novelty and self-improvement engendered by these companies themselves.

As production ramps up to meet our inflated needs and expectations, so too does the environmental cost. McKinsey found that the fashion industry was responsible for 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, equivalent to around four per cent of the global total. It’s an amount the planet can ill afford given the global target of net zero carbon by 2050, which the industry is on course to miss. As widespread water scarcity looms, fashion continues to use around 79 billion cubic metres per year, with the amount set to double by 2030 according to the Boston Consulting Group’s 2017 ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ report, while the majority of virgin materials are still derived from non-renewable fossil fuels.

The global south is likely to be hit first by the fallout of fashion’s overuse of natural resources – salt in the wound given that’s where most underpaid and overworked garment workers live, and already suffer under fast-fashion brands, production having been offshored in the name of cost-cutting and skirting tough workplace regulations.

If Ofcom really draws an ethical line in the sand for product placement, then fast fashion – which is extremely harmful, deadly in some cases, to people and the planet – should be afforded the same level of scrutiny and moral consideration as the products already on the banned list.

After the credits

As the transition from reality TV star to social media influencer is almost a given now, the sponsorship doesn’t end when the credits roll. Fastfashion giants such as Boohoo, Missguided, MissPap and PrettyLittleThing court Love Island stars as soon as they leave the island, offering them hundreds of thousands of pounds to collaborate on exclusive collections and promote their products to their social media followers.

Stars of fly-on-the-wall shows also create promotional content for a huge array of brands from Zara to L’Oréal, leveraging the familiarity bred by viewers having intimate access to the ins and outs of their lives, and utilising language that reads more like making a recommendation to a friend than playing the part of human billboard for a brand. With payment for appearing on the shows themselves being relatively low (Digital Spy reported that Love Island stars receive around £250 per week, while Made in Chelsea cast members are paid roughly the same amount per episode), it’s the income from subsequent brand sponsorships that really makes appearing on reality TV shows worth the while.

There is a chain of exploitation from the reliance on cheap labour to the misuse of natural resources to the use of loyal followers as a bargaining chip for a great advertising deal. And as long as these brands are championed on our screens, the cycle continues.

Sophie Benson is a journalist and lecturer working with a focus on sustainable fashion, the environment and consumerism.

This column first appeared in Issue 230: Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to get great content hot off the press!


Review – Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry

Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine's edited volume is a powerful indictment of the modern migration complex writes Nico Vaccari

Review – National Theatre Connections 2020: Plays for young people

From climate change to the perils of the information era, the collection powerfully explores the struggles facing contemporary teenagers, writes Jordana Belaiche

Gambling with lives

Betting firms have infiltrated football culture and destroyed lives. James Grimes argues its time to reclaim the sport


Political goals and corporate carewash

Marcus Rashford is challenging neoliberal framings of poverty. We should call him a hero, argues Siobhan McGuirk – without letting his sponsors off the hook

Review – Regicide or Revolution? What petitioners wanted, September 1648 – February 1649 by Nora Carlin

Norah Carlin's analysis of the Levellers' petitions reaffirms the radical nature of the English revolution, argues John Rees.

Review – I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and apocalypse communism by A M Gittlitz

Despite its outlandish reputation, A M Gittlitz's analysis of Posadism shows there is value in occasionally indulging in fanciful thinking, writes Dawn Foster.