I am inept at identifying media trends and even worse at digesting ones identified by others -- only recently, for example, have I processed the possibility that the telegraph might not survive the perilous migration into the digital era. But even I have started to write off the viability of online video clips and series as a branding tool.
Nearly every brand exercise doubling as content has come across as just that: overproduced shtick that has no compelling reason to exist independent of the beflogged marketer. You can stick however many aching-for-work actors you want in an IKEA or in front of a Dell computer, but unless you give them something interesting to do, viewers will check out the first few minutes of the first episode before dismissing it and moving on to a content-first play -- say, Marvel's dark, extravagant Motion Comics.
Alas, marketers keep trying, so I'll keep reviewing. And the last few weeks have seen the arrival of a particularly rich crop, with entries from A-list brands such as HBO and Procter & Gamble. Neither does anything to make me more or less fond of the presenting marketer, of course, but the brand muscle behind them demands at least a token survey.
The irony is that I dig "HBO Imagine," which I'm choosing to view as legit content rather than as an ad/short-film hybrid, more than any other brand-fueled entity that's out there. Not only does it put a premium on inventive storytelling, but it grants viewers full control over the process. In allowing them to graze among an amalgam of slickly produced video clips, faux 911 recordings, legal documents and NannyCam footage, "Imagine" allows viewers to observe pivotal scenes in the loosely interwoven narratives from multiple perspectives. It's one part "Rashomon" and one part "Choose Your Own Adventure."
Each angle adds depth and dimension to the tales, but what I really like about "Imagine" is its tone. As opposed to the self-unaware-people-acting-dumb-within-the-confines-of-the-workplace antics chronicled in most branded video series,"Imagine" shoots for dark comedy and faint menace. An arc involving a mime mixed up in malfeasance hooked me faster than any "Law & Order" episode ever did, and made me laugh out loud to boot (the speaker at the mime's funeral kicks off his remarks with "I'm not particularly good with words"). A fake commercial for a financial conglomerate revels in images of soaring eagles and rampaging horses; a sumptuously photographed scene of a child sleeping amid an army of teddy bears pulls back to reveal a money-laundering operation in which the stuffed animals play a pivotal role.
In the end, though, I'm not sure what "Imagine" does for HBO as a brand. To be honest, I think the folks behind it might be giving potential viewers a little too much credit. Unlike pretty much every other web-video project with the exception of HBO's own "Voyeur," "Imagine" challenges them, both to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks and by asking them to complete the narrative arcs via videos of their own. Still, my response after having spent a full 90 minutes with "Imagine" was "Gee, that was neat, but I wish there'd been more dramatic resolution," not "Hey honey, go grab the Flip camera and some stage makeup. We're gonna make us a movie!"
Also, it's not like HBO needs additional credibility as an incubator of ideas. Most viewers are going to give each new HBO series a shot based on the genre-tipping excellence of those that came before -- "The Larry Sanders Show," " The Sopranos," etc. However compulsively browse-able "Imagine" may be, it won't prompt viewers to reevaluate their perception of HBO or further cement the network's creative supremacy in their minds. As such, it's less an effective branding agent than a way-cool web doodad.
On the other hand, it sure trumps Procter & Gamble's "A Parent Is Born," a Pampers-branded reality series that tracks a couple through the birth of their first child. In bite-sized installments, the 12-episode series walks us through doctor visits and the ultimate delivery, and does so in a way that celebrates the loving huggy happiness and downplays the complications. Nowhere during the pre-birth period, for example, does anyone reference, say, painful cramps or ping-ponging emotions. Because that'd be icky.
Its unforgivable sin is blandness. Shot in soft focus and backstopped by the usual tempered-emo soundtrack, "A Parent Is Born" somehow manages to drain the sense of wonder from the process. The parents-in-gestation, while steeped in you're-the-shmoopy adorability, are neither charismatic nor plate-flingingly insane. The narrative arc isn't anything we haven't seen before, unless a yet-to-air lost episode reveals that mom secretly gave birth to a lizard of some sort. As for the Pampers branding, it doesn't exist outside of a late-episode monologue regarding dad's anxiety about changing diapers. Turns out he has a gag reflex of some kind. Will his love for Junior trump his aversion to poo? Tune in to find out. Or don't.
In short, P&G's "Parent Is Born" approach is "Watch it because we made it." If you can't find a better way to procrastinate on the web, you're not trying very hard.