Apologies for stealing the headline from an editorial we ran Monday about the FCC and product placement, but it applies just as well to this post. In the aforementioned opinion piece, the Times' editorial board inveighed against the nanny-state notion that adults can't ward off the siren song of embedded advertising without the government's help. Still, I sense that we might be on the cusp of a new wave in video that intertwines advertising and entertainment more completely than before, and also more subtly. Call it the era of "branded entertainment," brought to you by content providers who can't (or won't) make people pay to watch their programming. And although I think market forces will serve as a powerful deterrent to deceptive behavior, I wonder if even the most in-your-face disclosures about the role of advertisers won't be erased as clips bounce from site to site to site.
Branded entertainment is programming whose main purpose is to advance a brand's message. Typically, advertisers (or more accurately, their agencies) are involved in the programming from its inception, working with writers to come up with characters and story lines that line up well with the brand's identity. A textbook case of this is "The Rookie," a series of short videos sponsored by Unilever, the makers of the deodorant Degree. It has the look and feel of a spinoff from "24," the Fox series -- it's on the Fox "24" website, and it uses the same director of photography, crew, graphics and other resources from the show, Sam Chadha, a marketing director at Unilever, said at the Advertising 2.0 conference last month. And significantly, Degree never makes it way into the action. Like 24's Jack Bauer, The Rookie's Jason Blaine doesn't seem to have time for personal hygiene. But there's a crucial difference between Bauer and Blaine -- according to David Lang of MindShare Entertainment, the company that conceived "The Rookie," Blaine's character is "based solely on Degree's brand positioning." Degree for Men, which claims to be adrenaline-activated, "protects men who take risks," its website proclaims. And Blaine is a guy who takes adrenaline-pumping risks aplenty but never sweats through his shirt.
Unilever's connection to "The Rookie" is clear on the official site, but its precise role isn't mentioned. The Degree logo is prominently displayed in the upper right-hand corner of every page, and there's a subsection of the site devoted to the antiperspirant. Yet the site doesn't lay out the advertiser's integration into the writing and production of the clips. The "behind the scenes" photos and videos don't show MindShare and Unilever exchanging notes with the writers of the series. Beyond that, it's easy to find the webisodes on other sites, where there's no mention of Unilever or Degree. Nevertheless, I think there's a self-correcting aspect to this kind of marketing. Advertisers expect their investments in these programs to generate an increase in sales and/or brand recognition. Otherwise, they'll stop paying for them. But if the programs don't work as entertainment, the public won't watch them. If these videos come off as infomercials, they'll attract an infomercial-scale audience.
The really interesting question is whether people will feel suckered if they find out that oh-so-entertaining bit of free online video was designed first and foremost to sell them something. Is there a purity test in the public's mind? I doubt it. It's hard to believe that viewers would have shunned the BMW films had the car maker not been up front about its involvement. Stuff that good doesn't come along often enough, regardless of who's paying for it. And one thing seems sure -- the public's not eager to foot the bill for programming online. Yet the blogosphere likes nothing better than an expose, so offering branded entertainment with no disclosure at all would probably generate an intense backlash against the content and the brand. Add that to the self-correcting elements of this phenomenon.