Life After Hot And Sexy

An Inability to Communicate Truthful Brand Qualities Is Holding Back This Industry

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The four industries that create the slippery nexus of branded entertainment -- media distribution, entertainment, new technology and advertising -- are bogged down splitting hairs over the demise of the 30-second spot, the web's growing importance and the viewer's propensity to tune out nearly all traditional advertising.

Illustration: Toby Morison
Consider the difference between traditional TV ads and the permission-based model this way: A squatty, ugly old man walks into a bar. He calls for silence. With a straight face, he shouts, "Attention, ladies. I am hot and sexy. Marry me. Now!" Does it work? Not a chance.


I've been in this space for 20 years as a consultant, creative and investor, and I find the nature of this debate fascinating. Not the arguments themselves, mind you, but the psychology behind the discourse itself. Because, in the end, all of the talk doesn't matter.

Our debate around branded entertainment is just a defensive tactic to avoid the real work that needs to be done. Much like someone trying to quit smoking, we get excited about nothing just so we can justify lighting the next cigarette.

Complex addiction
Our addiction is more complex, but the behavior is the same. As an industry, we are hooked on delivering messages that come from wishful thinking about brand positioning to an audience that doesn't expect much from us. It's a good life, hiding behind the noncommitted formula of one-way dialogue -- and, understandably, we are stalling real change.

We keep asking researchers to show us that young consumers want their cars (or denim, or soda pop) to be "hot and sexy" so we can continue to put together glossy creative that portrays a $13,000 shoddy car as hot and sexy.

Then we spend millions to show the ad on TV alongside dreamy mothers cleaning grass-stained soccer shorts in even worse commercials.

Soon, an annoying notion of permission-based marketing appears. But we debate it into oblivion, or reluctantly pay new trends some lip service and dabble with making the old ads and messaging a little funnier.

We even ask users to make their own ads because we don't know how to interest them. But then the ungrateful little consumers we have been preaching to for 60 years actually create surprisingly funny and sickeningly candid content showing us what they really think. Even more frightening, it actually generates a real participatory audience. Consumers' limitless access to information about our products has compounded our problems.

Online dialog among users has infused reality into the sales and marketing process whether we like it or not. In this current scenario, the problem isn't the creative or the media-it's the message. But if we can't tell our customers that the $13,000 car is hot and sexy, then what are we going to tell them?

I suggest we tell the truth -- and develop the salient narrative that makes that truth promising.

Our inability to move from extolling hot and sexy to communicating brand qualities that are truthful, relevant and sincere is holding this industry back. Eventually, all marketing will be permission-based; consumers will opt in to interact with brands rather than act as passive recipients of mass advertising.
Johan Liedgren is an independent consultant to marketers and agencies. He founded entertainment and consulting company Honkworm and is an advisor and investor in several technology companies including Loudeye Technologies, Fusion Filmworks, MediaCast and Emappz. In 1998, Mr. Liedgren left Microsoft after seven years as its director of channel policy. Before that, he spent six years as a management consultant. On the creative side, Mr. Liedgren has worked with program development, scripts and narrative structures for companies such as Coca-Cola, Ford, HBO, MTV, Nike, Showtime Japan and Yahoo. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of narrative structures as well as a contributor to books and essays on related topics. He is working on several film and TV projects in the U.S. and in Europe.
Johan Liedgren is an independent consultant to marketers and agencies. He founded entertainment and consulting company Honkworm and is an advisor and investor in several technology companies including Loudeye Technologies, Fusion Filmworks, MediaCast and Emappz. In 1998, Mr. Liedgren left Microsoft after seven years as its director of channel policy. Before that, he spent six years as a management consultant. On the creative side, Mr. Liedgren has worked with program development, scripts and narrative structures for companies such as Coca-Cola, Ford, HBO, MTV, Nike, Showtime Japan and Yahoo. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of narrative structures as well as a contributor to books and essays on related topics. He is working on several film and TV projects in the U.S. and in Europe.

Honest Answers
Branded entertainment is just the canary in the coal mine. To survive, we're going to have to take a hard look at the real stories around our brands. And then tell those stories -- and tell them well -- to build a sustainable, overarching brand narrative.

Consider the difference between traditional TV ads and the permission-based model this way: A squatty, ugly old man walks into a bar. He calls for silence. With a straight face, he shouts, "Attention, ladies. I am hot and sexy. Marry me. Now!"

Does it work? Not a chance. Once morbid curiosity has worn off, there's no incentive for the patrons to listen to the man. Worse yet, judging from the discrepancy between his pitch and his appearance, he's probably delusional. Yet advertisers and marketers continue to spend millions doing the same thing. They try to sell a story that's completely out of touch with reality to a crowd that doesn't want to hear from them.

But what if that same man jumped up on a barstool and told a captivating, honest and unique story about his own pursuit of love in the modern world? If heartfelt and told well, the story would prompt interested women to come buy the man a drink and learn more. Even better, they might pass along his phone number to other single friends -- virally spreading the word about his open proposal.

We need to realize-and take to heart-that the wall between advertising, content and the brand itself has eroded. Advertisers must understand that the question of "What is in it for the brand?" (which advertisers have always asked) is now intimately coupled with the question of "What's in it for the consumer?" (which content providers have always asked).

The honest answers to these questions may not thrill some brand managers or agencies married to the old formula of developing messaging. But I, alongside many sincere and hardworking colleagues in the industry, see an opportunity to fundamentally reshape advertising and the media landscape.

It's up to marketers to step out from behind the protection of disassociated and lazy marketing speak and find within the brand what is sincere. Think about yourself standing up on that bar stool. The crowd quiets and turns to you, curious. What will you tell them that is actually true, is captivating enough to engage and tells a story that simply couldn't work with any other brand?
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