The inescapable commercials

Planting advertising where consumers can't escape it has always been a marketer's dream, so it's not surprising that the idea of integrating messages right into TV shows is once again gaining favour.
To some, in fact, it's salvation: especially those who believe that the combined forces of audience fragmentation and advanced commercial avoidance technologies will have the effect of devaluing traditional commercial spots.
But many of those familiar with its practical application see branded content in somewhat more realistic terms. To them integrating branded messages into the flow of programming is just one part of the strategic puzzle, and it's unlikely to stand out any more than promotional golf balls or billboard advertising.

Planting advertising where consumers can’t escape it has always been a marketer’s dream, so it’s not surprising that the idea of integrating messages right into TV shows is once again gaining favour.

To some, in fact, it’s salvation: especially those who believe that the combined forces of audience fragmentation and advanced commercial avoidance technologies will have the effect of devaluing traditional commercial spots.

But many of those familiar with its practical application see branded content in somewhat more realistic terms. To them integrating branded messages into the flow of programming is just one part of the strategic puzzle, and it’s unlikely to stand out any more than promotional golf balls or billboard advertising.

‘Branded content will have and has had a role in the mix, but I wouldn’t characterize it as meat, vegetables or salad. I would characterize it as garnish and really nothing more than that,’ says Mark Sherman, president of Montreal and Toronto-based media buying firm The Media Experts.

To some, branded content is just a new-fangled phrase for product placement, the age-old practice of dropping some merchandise into the narrative flow of a movie or television program.

But to fully leverage entertainment partnerships, brands need to go further.

To assure success, marketers need to come in on the ground floor as an actual investor in a program, according to Stuart McLean, partner in Los Angeles-based Bedell McLean Branded Entertainment, which specializes in setting up investment opportunities for brands in entertainment properties.

This generates significant savings because that initial investment allows marketers to integrate the entertainment assets into all kinds of initiatives, as opposed to writing a new cheque for every consumer promotion, direct mail campaign or on-pack reference to a show.

Indeed, according to McLean, in order to build around such partnerships, product placement need not even play a role.

‘Because they’ve taken the risk and come in as a production partner, they have rights to the content to be used across their marketing plans – [with] no additional licensing fees – which is really where they get the most bang for their buck,’ says McLean who counts Labatt Breweries of Canada’s beer.com as a client. ‘It’s the most important thing for the brand.’

While such investments are still only being considered by most marketers, and there’s little evidence as to the effectiveness of these deals, more and more brands continue to test the waters every day.

One approach is to buy a share in a program and divide the risk, rather than covering the cost alone. Omnicom has had a hand in creating several U.S. music specials according to this formula, featuring such stars as the Dixie Chicks, Jennifer Lopez and the Backstreet Boys. Clients including Visa and Pepsi have signed on as sponsors.

But few programs have taken the concept to greater heights than Lions Gate Television’s No Boundaries, which Bedell McLean helped set up.

The show was cancelled in the U.S., but continued to put up decent numbers for its Canadian broadcaster, Global Television. The May 8 season finale drew a national audience of 584,000 viewers and actually won the night in the Vancouver market with a 6.5 rating among adults 18 to 49, according to Global.

Sponsored entirely by Ford, No Boundaries follows 15 participants on a 30-day race from Vancouver Island to the Arctic Circle. The U.S. car manufacturer not only put up more than 80% of the funds for the $500,000-per-episode production, it also played an active role in the planning and execution of the series (through its Detroit ad agency, J. Walter Thompson).

Shots of Ford sport utility vehicles are featured in the titles, and in most episodes, if not all, contestants climb in and out of Ford SUVs to get from point A to point B. The Ford Explorer Sport Trac is mentioned each week as part of the prize package. Even the No Boundaries title is directly drawn from Ford’s tagline.

Such deep involvement can raise all kinds of alarms among those concerned with maintaining some formal divide between content and advertising.

But Kevin Beggs, president of TV production for Lions Gate, says that the car company’s involvement at no point jeopardized the series’ integrity.

‘Everything that we’re doing, we would have been doing. If you see the original show [71 Degrees North, a format owned by the Scandinavian Broadcasting System and optioned to Lions Gate], they also had to clamber into vans. [Ford's] involvement was completely organic to the show. We didn’t reverse engineer the show to fit them at any point.’

This is an important point because while there seems to be no limit to the lengths producers and marketers will go to juice audiences with branded messages, apparently there are boundaries.

‘What you have to be careful of when you’re doing branded content is that you’re selective,’ says Jeff Copeland, VP and executive producer at Toronto-based Millennium Media Television, which produces the teen lifestyle show Bang TV (also airing on Global).

‘For instance, if you’re doing teen programming, you have to be very careful to make sure that the brands involved are brands that your audience perceives as hip….You have to be very careful that the brand suits the programming that you’re putting out there.’

At the same time, there is also the concern that being too overt in brand integration will turn the audience off a program.

Bang TV, which targets young males through a combination of extreme sports coverage and urban music, has two sponsors that are regularly integrated into the show, Mountain Dew and HMV. Both hold a certain cachet with Bang TV’s viewers and are, as a result, legitimate participants in the program flow, whether it be the host boarding in Mountain Dew branded apparel, or music discussions with an HMV music expert.

Of course the other side of the coin is that brand managers need to be equally discerning about what types of programs they align themselves with.

For instance, Sharon MacLeod, brand manager for Salon Selectives at Unilever Canada, notes that her brand’s sponsorship of Global’s Popstars ‘felt like it was custom made for the brand’ (see ‘Sponsors leverage popularity of Popstars,’ (Strategy, March 25/02, p. 11).

And while MacLeod could not provide exact numbers, she says the payoff was a positive impact on sales. ‘The show launched March 1 and we’ve seen a sales lift at key retailers that stems directly from that date.’

Chris Geddes, director of sales and marketing at Toronto-based Lone Eagle Entertainment, producer of Popstars, says the key to that success was full integration of the product and the show’s content.

‘What we’re offering is a way for an advertiser to actually leverage rather than just support something – slapping their name on it and being a bystander and hoping people make the link,’ he says. ‘We’re inviting them into the process and, with that, delivering additional things to leverage.’

With files from Susan Zeller.