Understanding the Pitfalls and Potential of Branded Entertainment

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In his just-published book, Madison & Vine: Why the Entertainment and Advertising Industries Must Converge to Survive, Ad Age Editor Scott Donaton explains and documents the movement toward branded entertainment.
Photo: Hoag Levins
The new book by Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'
In the following edited excerpt from Chapter 15, "Crossing the Line," he discusses why and how content commerce convergence can go wrong.

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In the convergence of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, there is a very real danger that content will be developed first and foremost with an advertiser's needs in mind, and will only then seek an audience.

Many marketers' motivation for gaining creative input into story lines and media content is not to have a more engaging dialogue with consumers. Instead, they are motivated by the fear that digital video recorders will make 30-second ads obsolete. How do you connect to consumers who can give you a brusque technological brush-off?

Forgetting the consumer
Forgetting that the consumer comes first is a surefire model for disaster, one that leads to weak products that are unable to attract an audience, or earn its trust if they do attract it. The public loses out. The media company loses out. The advertiser loses out.

The other concern is that the new forms of advertising through entertainment will be executed lazily and without imagination, and thus will become little more than a return to the product placements and title sponsorships of the early days of radio and TV.

This would amount to responding to one of the most revolutionary technological challenges in decades with a half-hearted, warmed-over solution.

TV networks have embraced product integration not to satisfy viewer demand, but because the escalation of production costs has destroyed their economic model. Poorly done, product integration is dangerous because of the real risk that it will damage the consumer's relationship with both the advertiser and the media outlet.

When done right, however, product integration can enhance both a brand's image and the entertainment experience. In the best cases, the product is a comfortable fit with the content, and perhaps even provides a measure of verisimilitude.

Commercials disguised as content
Consumers will reject poor attempts to disguise commercials as entertainment. When in 2002 Ford Motor Co. signed a deal with NBC's Tonight Show to sponsor concerts on the program, The Wall Street Journal reported Ford's plan to fill the stage with Lincolns, then noted, "Lincoln also would like to have the musical performers be driven onto the stage in Lincoln vehicles." How's that for seamless, natural integration?

"Why not go the next step?" I wrote in a column critical of the deal. "Have Jay Leno deliver his monologue on the hood of a Lincoln and interview guests from the front seat. The blatant disregard for the viewer is almost staggering." Ellis Verdi of DeVito/Verdi warned in The Journal of the danger of overstepping the bounds: "You cheapen the product." He didn't specify whether his reference was to the media product or the advertised product, but the warning applies to both.

There are other examples of wrongheaded entertainment alliances. CBS today is one of the most forward-thinking networks in doing product-integration deals, and its use of such tie-ins in the reality show Survivor has been applauded by many people in the space. The Tiffany Network wasn't always so astute, however.

In 1996, CBS staged a promotional stunt to boost sales of Elizabeth Taylor's Black Pearls perfume. La Liz appeared in four of the network's sitcoms on a Monday night during the February sweeps period, when networks are shooting for their highest ratings. The common story line that ran through the plots of all the programs was the actress's search for a missing string of black pearls. Get it?

Pushing jewelery
It was a crass placement that seemed to signal that CBS was more interested in keeping advertisers happy than in entertaining its viewers. The issue surfaced again three years later when CBS decided to sell replicas of the jewelry worn by characters on the soap opera Guiding Light. Once again, profitability trumped credibility.

CBS instructed the soap's writers to weave the product directly into the plot of the show so that it could sell lots of $29.95 baubles. That corrupted the creative process; instead of the writers' goal being to entertain viewers, their goal was to make more money for the network. Defenders of CBS countered that the jewelry promotion was a solid example of the marriage of content and commerce. Let's hope not. If all the grand theories of convergence truly boil down to a world in which viewers can buy replicas of the jewelry worn by the characters in a soap opera, a lot of intellectual and financial resources are being misspent.

Crossing the line with Campbell's
In 2000, it was ABC that crossed the line. Its morning talk show The View, which was produced by the entertainment division but featured journalists such as the venerable Barbara Walters, cut a deal with Campbell Soup Co. that gave the product a starring role in the show. In one program, Walters talked about eating Campbell Soup as a child while her co-hosts hummed the brand's "M'm! M'm! Good!" tagline. ABC and Walters defended the marketing deal and said that it didn't affect the show's quality. Exposing their hypocrisy, however, they then killed a planned segment in which another host was scheduled to roam the studio testing the audience's soup-sipping abilities. (You can't make this stuff up.)

Such deals show a complete lack of imagination and forward thinking. They treat viewers as morons while betraying their trust. A brand boils down to a promise to the consumer to deliver a product or service at a consistent quality. If Campbell were to put inferior soup in a red-and-white can to bolster its bottom line, it would betray that promise. When The View put together an inferior entertainment product designed with a marketer rather than a viewer in mind, it did the same thing.

Product placement may seem like an effective marketing tool, but it's a poor substitute for an idea.

In 2003, I again stirred up this debate with a column critical of a much-hyped NBC reality program called The Restaurant. The show was already a rather unusual collaboration between Reveille, a production company headed by Ben Silverman, a former William Morris agent turned reality-show producer; Mark Burnett, the visionary (and extremely sponsor-friendly) producer behind the reality hits Survivor and The Apprentice; and Magna Global Entertainment, one of the world's largest media-buying agencies. The product-placement deals put in place with Magna Global clients covered the cost of producing the show, leaving NBC little risk in airing it.

Breaking the cardinal rule
But the so-called mini-commercials in the show for participating brands seemed to break the cardinal rule of product integration: Make it seamless and subtle.

"Anyone interested in the brand-integration space" needed to study The Restaurant, I wrote, "to learn what absolutely not to do." Already a dreadful show on its own, The Restaurant was rendered nearly unwatchable by product placements that were aggressive, intrusive and clunky -- anything but the seamless blend that is necessary to make them bearable, never mind bringing them near to the (perhaps unattainable) standard of enhancing the programming. The Restaurant, which chronicled the opening of an upscale New York Italian restaurant by celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, was not happy with showing American Express cards being used to pay for meals and Coors beer being served to customers along with other drinks or shots of Rocco pulling up to the door in his Mitsubishi (all tie-in partners). Instead, it repeatedly and blatantly crossed the line and tested the limits of viewers' tolerance.

'Spontaneous' plugs
In the first episode, Rocco pulled up in his SUV in front of hundreds of hopefuls auditioning for jobs as waiters and bartenders. One young guy at the front of the line turned to another and said something like (and this was supposedly spontaneous, even though he was wearing a microphone), "What a perfect car for Rocco. What a chick-mobile." In another episode, a weary Rocco reviewed the restaurant's financials after a particularly draining day. He was slumped in a chair, fretting that more money was going out than coming in, when he suddenly announced to the camera, "I know what I'll do. I'll have Stacy apply for a line of credit from American Express' Open: The Small Business Network." The camera then cut to a shot of his assistant at AmEx's Open Web site.

The Restaurant was not the only show to cross the line, but it demonstrated vividly what can go wrong in the brand-integration space: how fragile the connection with an audience can be, and the cost if it's lost.

"You're going to see some shows doing it extremely well, where you're hardly aware that you've been sold something. And then there are going to be some shows where you're going to cringe, where it won't feel right," said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.

A natural feel
Coca-Cola's Steve Heyer believes that true brand integration moves beyond product placement to ideas that feel natural and relevant to the consumer and reflect the brand's positioning. He cited Coca-Cola's Red Room on the reality TV series American Idol. The backstage area where contestants gather is decorated Coca-Cola red and includes a Coke vending machine and clock and a red couch with a white Coca-Cola ribbon running along its length. [Mr. Heyer is currently preparing to leave Coca-Cola.]

The key, Heyer said, is to be "critically incidental."

"At a key moment that feels right, the product has to be accepted and feel appropriate. If it's jarring, if it's false, everyone knows that." Coke's goal is to build Red Rooms for other televised events, including one at the Olympics, in the village, where athletes could hang out and chug icy Cokes, preferably on camera.

If that sounds too blatantly commercial, it proves the point that defining the line between appropriate and over the top is a subjective task.

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