"Princess Agents," a Chinese drama set in a long-ago dynasty, is about a young slave woman who becomes a sword-wielding military general. It features, among other period details, elaborate costumes: silky robes, braided hairdos and plenty of armor. But viewers who streamed the show online this summer encountered a startling, anachronistic scene: the series' sweaty warriors cracking open a chest filled with icy Coca-Cola.
Chinese online video platforms are a hotbed of advertising experimentation, pushing limits of how and where brands typically appear. The results are often surprising. Imagine if the 18th-century Scottish clans of the Starz drama "Outlander" took a break from warring to feast on haggis and Stove Top stuffing. Or if "Downton Abbey" paused for a commercial, only to show the household staff spritzing the castle curtains with Febreze.
It may sound bizarre, but this kind of thing happens often on China's streaming sites, where the tactic is widespread in everything from period dramas to reality TV. People call it "native video advertising" or "creative mid-roll." It's a clever way of serving brand content to people who aren't expecting to see ads in the middle of their shows. These ads are interruptive, just like an old-fashioned commercial, but the hope is that people will enjoy them if they feature characters from the show and seem like a companion piece to the series. The idea is to catch people off guard and make them laugh.
Branding the Song dynasty
It's all because of costume dramas.
"We have a lot of dramas that are really popular in China that are set in ancient times, but it's really hard for fashion brands and other modern brands to do product placement," says Jialu Yuan, general manager of drama marketing at iQiyi.
After all, you can't have characters from the Song dynasty using a smartphone app or drinking juice from plastic bottles...or can you?
Last year, clients, producers and iQiyi worked together on an idea. What if, for each episode of a costume drama, you could include a standalone scene where a brand or product appeared in an offbeat, anachronistic way that would get viewers talking? The series' production teams could prepare and shoot the commercials themselves, instead of creative agencies. Show producers already have the actors, costumes and sets.
iQiyi, which is backed by Chinese internet giant Baidu, adopted the tactic first and developed it into a commercial product when it broadcast the 1930s tomb-raiding adventure tale "The Mystic Nine" last year. The first batch of advertisers ranged from iQianjin, a peer-to-peer lending app, to PepsiCo, which showed characters chowing down on Lay's and gulping Pepsi.
The other major services, Alibaba Group's Youku Tudou and Tencent Holdings' video platform, have embraced the tactic too. At iQiyi, the cost for embedding one such commercial in an episode ranges from $150,000 to $530,000, depending on projected viewership, Yuan says.
A commercial, perhaps 30 or 45 seconds long, might appear once or twice but isn't repeated endlessly, as ads usually are, so it stays novel and seems like part of the content.
"People have gotten very resistant to a hard sell—they think this way is more entertaining, and it's a new way of seeing the characters from a show," says Alessandro Pang, associate business director of OMD China. "If you're watching 'Game of Thrones' you wouldn't want to see a shampoo ad pop up which is totally not relevant." But what if "Game of Thrones" characters get together to relax and crack open a modern-day beer? People might find that funny, he says.