Bringing More Barnum to Brand Integration

Yes, Product Placement Today Is Tone-Deaf, Clumsy and Ubiquitous, but It Can Be Done Effectively

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Timothy Hawthorne
Timothy Hawthorne
If branded entertainment was as madcap a circus as media pundits imply, you would think it worthy of the center ring. In truth, it languishes outside marketing's big top and in the curiosities tent, somewhere between the Subservient Chicken and a life-size wax statue of Ernest P. "Hey, Vern" Worell.

And it is curious. Product placement generates groans from TV and film creatives, concern from congressional screen-time seekers, phone books of blogosphere analysis -- and disinterested yawns from consumers. Larry Dobrow was right when he said current brand integration is tone-deaf, clumsy and too ubiquitous for viewers to notice. But his conclusion -- "I no longer think there's a way to do production integration effectively" -- is premature. What brand integration needs desperately is for a modern P.T. Barnum to stroll boldly through the tent flap. Not so we can con all those suckers born every minute, but to put on a really good show.

I won't try to match Dobrow point-for-point or joke-for-joke, but "Toe-to-Toe With Dobrow" could be a real draw -- and (not insignificantly) a winning brand integration for publications that feature his work. Brand-integration models that can deliver real brand attention and positivity must also be complete content vehicles that stand on their own merits. Think blue-collar comedies such as "The Honeymooners," "The Flintstones" and "Roseanne." Ralph, Fred and Rosie had to work somewhere -- why not a Post cereal plant? Let Post pay the freight. Let Post write the scripts. Freudian transference assures us that any affection we develop toward the show should rub off on the brand just as warmly.

Yes, there are hurdles:

Broadcast-network practices will never permit it. Writers are already apoplectic that brand intrusions are threatening their very special Emmysodes devoted to illuminating the human condition. And while you might persuade a Fox to schedule "The Jeff Bezos Amateur Hour," a full season of "Amazons!" would rankle the Targets and Walmarts that advertise on other network properties.

Transference is a double-edged trait. If warm, fuzzy feelings can humanize brands, creative duds can poison perceptions. Imagine "The Office" set in Redmond. Creatively, you could easily sustain a couple years' worth of programs -- but can you have a workplace sitcom without at least one dumb or ill-tempered boss? Every company has them, but who wants to admit it? The first rule of marketing: Do no harm.

Three words: ROI, ROI, ROI. Production companies bankroll creative costs to the tune of single-digit millions per episode. Extrapolate that to a 26-show schedule, and you're making a Super Bowl-sized investment --every week -- with the juicy buzz that comes with it. A supersize budget, but an indefinite return. Because web metrics so accurately measure impressions (certain brand managers' version of "return"), many companies instead are trying their branded-content initiatives at lower budgets and online. But think TV's fragmented? Try luring viewers to your website. However innovative and branded your vehicle, it's often reduced to a twinkle in a galaxy of 200 million competitors.

You're right, it's a "Toe-to-Toe" gotcha: "So let me get this straight. You're saying that: a) branded entertainment is a tremendous and untapped opportunity and b) it can't possibly work." Um ...

Admittedly a quandary, but forget not Mr. Barnum, a consummate pitchman. When we think of today's breed, it's not only direct-response titans such as "Slap-Chop" Vince, Ron Popeil and the late, great Billy Mays. Total strangers can arrest our attention if paired with the right products or brands. Branded entertainment has been in daily production and circulation for decades; only the hand-wringing is recent. So rescuing it from Dobrow's Dustbin of Doom may be a matter of recalibrating "best practices."

Just sponsor a whole show. Ask anyone middle-aged if they know about a certain Nebraska insurance company, and most will say yes -- thanks to "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." On the yellow brick road to awareness, exposure is the very first brick.

Less is more. Bypass big broadcast behemoths, because cable networks are on the front line of innovation now. Discovery's "Pitchmen" is pulling good ratings while doubling as an infomercial for Sullivan Productions, Telebrands and the goofy DRTV products featured. "The Next Food Network Star" unabashedly celebrates its entire network lineup. Even syndication might work as an affordable substitute, but placement is an obvious barrier. That said, in the foreseeable future, some bold brand will pull the trigger on scheduling a multi-episode branded-content series with its own ad hoc, inexpensive infomercial -- like media buys across myriad networks

Let ad experts run the show. Ad axiom: It's harder to move product than entertain or amuse. Copywriters know how to sell, plus they're already competent storytellers. Cut them loose, and we'll experience a new golden age of brand integration. Plus they won't script each line while suffering anti-commerce snits.

Embrace real reality. " Survivor: Tocantins" is fun, but it isn't exactly reality, now is it? The same would go for "Survivor: Filene's Basement." Besides, scripted programs are more likely to invite cynicism: "Dwight went from Dunder Mifflin to Staples this week? Gee, maybe next week he'll work at the Safeway!" People will watch anything stamped "real": enormous families ("Jon and Kate"), enormous people ("Biggest Loser"), and enormous egos ("Real Housewives"). Surely they'd watch real people working (especially if they were cocky, plump and had lots of kids). Office romance, superstore zoning battles, product display disputes ... there's fun and drama aplenty. Best of all, some brands are naturally suited to the format. Who could resist an info-docu-drama that shadowed eHarmony couples?

Crazy? Perhaps. But people said that of Barnum as well. He not only embraced the circus, he redefined it as a ritual that survives him a century later.

Timothy Hawthorne is chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV and digital ad agency founded in 1986. A former documentary producer/writer/director, Mr. Hawthorne has published three books and more than 175 articles on TV advertising and new media and spent the past 15 years investigating how capitalism will survive when nobody watches commercials anymore.
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