Launching a branded doc

Sony and Intel are teaming up with and Science Channel for a branded documentary that features the launch of a rocket powered by Sony's VAIO laptop.
August 19, 2010

This past March, Sony and Intel unveiled The Rocket Project, an ad campaign that features eight high school students attempting to design and build a rocket and launch it into the stratosphere using the brand’s VAIO Z-series laptop with Intel Core i5 Processors. It’s the kind of feel-good, underdog idea that reality TV viewers love. Consumers followed the teens’ progress over 150 days through a campaign site and social media feeds, such as Twitter.

Five months later, the students achieved their goal by launching the rocket 147,000 feet into the sky above Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Simultaneously, Sony revealed that a documentary about the feat will air on the Science Channel as a half-hour special in October.

The Rocket Project is the latest reality-style ad campaign that will find a home on television. It follows Gatorade’s successful Replay series, which Fox Sports Net picked up last year and is about to enter its third season.

Branded series – scripted and unscripted – aren’t new, but with the cost of producing them potentially lower than the typical TV media buy, more Fortune 500 advertisers are buying into unscripted ideas that seamlessly integrate their products in hopes of landing a broadcast deal.

The idea for The Rocket Project came from a factoid in Sony’s initial brief, which tasked its creative agency, Los Angeles-based 180, to come up with an idea touting the latest iteration of the laptop to use Intel’s processor.

‘On the face of it, a pretty dry brief,’ says William Gelner, the agency’s executive creative director. ‘But we hit upon this interesting insight, which was that the first rocket to go to the moon had less computing power than today’s VAIOs with Intel inside. We thought it made very much sense to try and launch a rocket into space using a VAIO.’

Prior to joining 180, Gelner worked in the creative department of New York-based agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty where he was part of the team that produced two seasons of the deodorant brand Axe’s Gamekillers series for MTV. Instinctively he knew that the story of eight high school kids from underprivileged backgrounds working to launch a rocket was the kind of hook a network might like.

‘The first rocket that went to the moon was a very emotional event for people,’ he says. ‘That was very much about people reaching their potential and it was something that hadn’t been done before.’

When the campaign began rolling out in March, Sony’s media agency reached out to the programmers at Discovery, who licensed a half-hour film from the brand (the terms of the deal are still being negotiated). The network says it is in the midst of production along with production company, which also filmed the ad campaign.

In order to produce a story with legs for long-format, Sony Electronics senior brand manager Ken Byers says the company had to relinquish some creative control. ‘It has to stand alone as a legit documentary in and of itself. If it starts to feel like an ad, then you fail,’ he says. ‘[It was about] finding the right way to integrate who we are and our product in a way that didn’t hinder the story but was the natural leg of the story.’

Byers says he is happy with how the campaign unfolded, adding it generated a quarter of a billion impressions through various online media channels. He will measure the success of the documentary not only through ratings, but the number of phone calls the brand receives from educators and schools looking to partner on similar education initiatives.

‘Ratings will be important but it will be an interesting learning process to see how the phones light up in terms of people wanting to partner with us in new and interesting ways,’ he says.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.