Bringing in the Brands

Here, realscreen looks at a few projects in which brands have used non-fiction storytelling to convey their messages.
November 1, 2010


Brand: Mitchum Deodorant

Directors: Albert Maysles/Bradley Kaplan

Aired on: Sundance Channel

The idea for deodorant brand Mitchum’s first ad campaign in five years started as a conversation between Revlon chairman Ron Perelman and filmmaker Brett Ratner, who had started creative consulting firm Brett Ratner Brands with CAA Marketing last year.

That initial conversation inspired Mitchum’s Hardest Working Person in America, a contest based on the notion that the 40-year-old brand has the most active – or hardest-working – ingredient in its deodorant. Beginning in May, entrants uploaded submit videos demonstrate their worthiness for the title. The submissions would then be voted on by the public.

To direct a series of five-minute short films about real-life hard workers, Ratner suggested Albert Maysles, the veteran documentarian and one half of The Maysles Brothers, the directing duo responsible for Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman.

Maysles has been directing commercials since 1963. Along with his late brother David, he helmed innumerable ads, many of them testimonials that featured non-professional actors, such as the ‘Take the Pepsi Challenge’ spots from the 1980s.

Ratner met the filmmaker and his current directing partner Bradley Kaplan at a dinner honoring the launch of Maysles’ book of photography two years ago. When the Mitchum idea came up, he decided to give them a call and the directors agreed to shoot four of the campaign’s eight web films.

‘Albert Maysles is not only a legendary documentarian, he’s the hardest working documentary filmmaker: he’s 82 years old and he still shoots every day that he can,’ says Jae Goodman, chief creative officer for Brett Ratner Brands and CAA Marketing, a division of Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

During the first call with Maysles and Kaplan, Goodman said the campaign should have a Studs Terkel feel. ‘We neither needed not wanted for Mitchum to have a bunch of bells and whistles on this. We just wanted to tell stories,’ says Goodman.

The reference struck a chord with Maysles, who responded that the late American historian and author was a friend. Shot documentary-style the resulting four films are earnest odes to modern-day Americana. Each profiles a person deemed the ‘hardest working’ in their field: a cattle rancher, a baker, a coach and a web entrepreneur.

Production began in March, with Maysles manning one camera and another cinematographer on another. The rest of the crew was rarely more than Kaplan, a producer, a production assistant and a sound person. The directors would spend two-to-three days embedding themselves with the subject to develop a rapport.

‘We didn’t try to reinvent the Maysles wheel, if you will,’ says Kaplan. ‘We tried to keep it looking and feeling like we were shooting a documentary film.’

Once the films were finished and posted on the campaign site, the second phase was the contest. The prize: $100,000 and the chance to become the subject of a film directed by Maysles and Kaplan.

Execs at US Sweepstakes, the company administering the contest, told Goodman he could expect around 50 submissions. By August, the campaign had received 154 videos. The winner wound up being somewhat of a celebrity in environmental circles. Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, heard about the Mitchum campaign and nominated Chad Pregracke, founder of not-for-profit Living Lands & Waters and an environmental activist who travels up and down the Mississippi River on a barge and dredges up the junk lying beneath its surface. He won with more than 50,000 votes; the resulting film, More than a Paycheck: Mitchum Presents America’s Hardest Workers premiered on the Sundance Channel on Oct. 22.

Goodman says the brand witnessed its largest sales gain in more than two years and landed prime shelf space at Wal-mart and Target. Brett Ratner Brands and CAA are in talks with their client for a potential 2011 campaign push.

‘On the one hand, as a marketer, I don’t think you need to see yourself in a campaign,’ says Goodman. ‘But I think there’s value in connecting with people on an emotional level and reality or documentary-style is one way to do it.’


Brands: Sony, Intel


Aired: Science Channel

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 was to air on the Science Channel as a half-hour special in October.

The Rocket Project is the latest reality-style ad campaign to find a home on television as a doc special. 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 campaign 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 which aired on Science Channel this past October into early November. The film was produced by, which also filmed the ad campaign, as well as the Axe Gamekillers material.

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. ‘Ratings [for the doc] 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.


Brands: AT&T, American Airlines

Prodco: Around the World Productions

Distributor: CBS Interactive

On a treacherously windy August day, veteran reality show star Jeff Schroeder made the four-hour trek to the top of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain. Halfway to the summit his AT&T cellphone rang in what CBS Interactive executive Joe Ferreira calls one of the ‘all-time great product integrations’. Schroeder’s girlfriend Jordan was on the line from North Carolina. She was checking in with the former Big Brother and Amazing Race contestant, who was climbing the mountain as the star of the real-time web series Around The World For Free.

Now in its second season, the series follows Schroeder and cameraman/director Zsolt Luka as they traverse the globe relying on wits, the kindness of strangers and two major brands. Traditionally, advertisers prefer to sponsor scripted or pre-shot unscripted content they can easily control, but CBS Interactive convinced American Airlines and telecom giant AT&T to buy in to the live show by incorporating their services seamlessly into its narrative: AT&T provided Schroeder with the phone and American offered domestic flights.

‘We bounced around a number of different potential partners and we landed on two huge ones with AT&T and American,’ says Ferreira, CBS Interactive’s SVP, network liaison and original content. ‘There are a large number of big agencies that have branded entertainment areas and know what they’re doing in this space. They’ve gone through the experimental phases and now we’re really starting to say, ‘Hey, there’s a business here and what can we do next?”

Branding is also incorporated into the show’s interactive map that the audience uses to follow Schroeder, and on the video streams and pre-rolls.

The series’ creators are Amazing Race 2 winner Alexander Boylan and producer Burton Roberts of Santa Monica-based Around the World Productions, also a former cast member of Survivor: Pearl Islands. In 2007, they self-produced and self-financed the first season starring Boylan, which aired on WGN America. For the second season, the partners inked a deal with CBS Interactive, where execs saw a sustainable property and picked it up as 50 webisodes airing over 100 days.

Boylan and Roberts conceived the series as a real-time travel show with branded sponsorships in mind from the get-go. Without brands, they say, web series such as Around the World would be impossible to produce with the level of quality viewers have come to expect from network television.

‘From day one we made it really ad-friendly and sponsor-friendly as well as sticking to our guns with what we wanted to do with a creative standpoint,’ says Roberts.

Though he wouldn’t talk specific numbers Ferreira says Around the World For Free‘s budget falls on the low end of the average $5,000 to $15,000 per minute budget for this type of reality program. ‘The fact that he’s traveling for free doesn’t lessen the production costs,’ he says. ‘But it does help us in terms of getting him to various places from time to time.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.