Branded Content Report: Branded Reality

As branded content picks up steam as well as spots on network and cable schedules, it's becoming more common to see the brand become the co-star.
January 1, 2009

Yes, branded content has been a buzz term in broadcasting and advertising circles for close to a decade now, and particularly in the reality genre, product placement is practically de rigueur. However, it can also serve to sever the connection between the viewer and the content if handled haphazardly: as realscreen‘s former editor Brendan Christie put it in an editorial dated October 2004, ‘When the client jumps up and starts waving at me, you’ve broken the viewer/broadcaster contract.’

But while branded content has gone through a bumpy ride over the last several years, in an entertainment landscape that’s been impacted significantly by YouTube, TiVo, BitTorrent and myriad other tech developments, it’s never been more important for broadcasters and advertisers to get the balance right. Whether the average channel surfer likes it or not, advertising keeps the lights on for a lot of his or her favorite programs and networks. Still, just as Mutual of Omaha and General Electric figured out a way to sell themselves as patrons of programming in TV’s golden age, so too are savvy brands, nets and prodcos connecting the dots between content and commercialism.

A set of recent examples of branded fare demonstrates how the right combination of product and content, coupled with a fully integrated, 360 model for promoting and airing the material, can be mutually beneficial for broadcasters, advertisers, and even the folks at home. And behind several of those examples is international production powerhouse No stranger to working with brands (the company still produces commercials and assorted marketing materials for ad agencies and direct-to-client), it’s also a formidable presence in long-form, with The Fog of War, Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster doc and the pilot of Mad Men in its arsenal. But it’s also aiming to elevate branded content into the realm of the watchable. According to Bob Friedman, @radical’s president of media and entertainment, recent projects such as Tommy Hilfiger Presents Ironic Iconic America, a one-hour special that aired on Bravo last October, and Gamekillers, a scripted reality series airing on MTV and produced for Unilever’s Axe, show how brands and broadcasters can create valid entertainment properties.

‘We’re not a company that does product placement or throws brands all over places, so it does take a brave client to, in effect, trust that we’ll get its DNA into the content,’ says Friedman from his New York office. In the case of Ironic Iconic America, that involved teaming the classic, all-American fashion brand with a concept that could unobtrusively reflect its brand values yet still make for good TV.

‘It’s a very unique tour of American beauty, love and sex, design, food, fashion and more,’ he says of the special, based on a book by Hilfiger and George Lois. ‘When we developed the idea, we thought Tommy as a brand could live in all of those places.’ Its hosts, poet/multimedia artist Rives and supermodel/flame of Leonardo DiCaprio, Bar Refaeli, embark over the course of the show on a wild ‘n’ wacky, pop culture-infused road trip across America. And while the odd item of Tommy Hilfiger clothing makes an appearance, and the man himself introduces the show, ‘if you were watching it you wouldn’t have thought it had anything to do with an advertiser, but you would’ve thought it had that brand DNA,’ offers Friedman. For his part, the man behind the brand, Tommy Hilfiger, concurs. ‘While it can be challenging to maintain the individuality and integrity of both the brand and the product, we did not face that with this project as the special relates to the essence of our brand,’ he says. ‘We also worked with a great team, and the product can only be as good as the team you are working with.’

The show is currently being shopped outside of the U.S. by FremantleMedia, with whom @radical has had a first-look development deal since 2007. ‘Product integration, where it’s permissible, is something [that] during economically uncertain times offers a logical opportunity to producer, advertiser and network,’ says David Ellender, CEO of FremantleMedia Enterprises, the company’s distribution and licensing arms. ‘We hope that we will be able to take our expertise in this area and be able to provide solutions for different clients and partners.’ Thailand has bought the show, but Ellender says he’s hopeful for more sales between now and the close of MIPTV at the end of March. ‘There’s also the potential for this to pull out as some kind of format, where you would get casts that come from particular territories,’ says Friedman.

Another recent branded production, for Toyota through its agency of record Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, similarly marries the non-fiction template with an advertiser looking to extol its values (and product) in a new light. The Line of Scrimmage is a series of 45-second doc-styled ‘episodes’ airing during NBC’s Sunday Night Football halftime show. Having recently wrapped its third season within the football franchise, this year’s installments, directed by Matt Ogens, profiled what Saatchi calls ‘the eight gutsiest high school teams in America.’ The vehicle sponsor, the Toyota Tundra, makes a brief appearance but the focus is clearly on the high school teams and their triumphs and travails.

‘The way it was concepted three years ago was by asking what were some really ‘heartland’ values,’ says Saatchi LA agency producer Amanda Miller. ‘That led us to high school football and the thought of taking a road trip across the country in a Tundra to visit high schools, and let them have the spotlight for that 45 seconds.’

While to some a 45-second episode may seem more like an elongated commercial, Miller says great care was taken in creating story arcs and captivating content that would appeal to NBC’s football fanatics. ‘The stories that were told, how the schools were honored and respected – anyone would want to be associated with that,’ she says. ‘But it was really smart of Toyota to choose to step out of the limelight a little bit [in the project]. There’s a three-second shot of the truck at the beginning and then it just gets on with the story. So did you see a lot of the truck? No, but ultimately that makes Toyota look a lot better than if they tried to ham-fist their product in there.’

Saatchi and Toyota have teamed up on other reality-styled projects which decidedly are more about the product. They include the one-hour doc Chasing Sunday: The Race to Cup about the automaker’s first appearance in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, and two other racing docs, Two Roads to Baja and Two Roads to the Taupo 1000, also produced by and featuring drivers racing Toyota FJ Cruisers in extreme off-road conditions. But while the autos may get a lot of screen time, the agency creatives and producers collaborated to create credible docs that all driving enthusiasts could enjoy, not just Toyota owners. Indeed, during the shooting of Chasing Sunday, Toyota driver Michael Waltrip’s team was accused of cheating. But in the interest of ‘keeping it real’ the issue was part of the doc, which aired on Fox just before the Daytona 500.

Another automaker entered the reality jungle this past year, but not through broadcast or cable. Chrysler, in collaboration with agency of record BBDO, New York and RSA Films, launched the Dodge Ram Challenge online series, pitting four teams of he-man drivers and their 2009 Dodge Ram 1500s against each other in a series of thrilling if not entirely safe challenges. The four eight-minute episodes were directed by action film helmer Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder), but also brought reality genre experts such as producer John Feist of Feisty Flix and Robert Mora (field producer for The Amazing Race) on board to advise on the challenges, which included driving the trucks through assorted hazardous courses, one featuring fireballs shot out of propane cannons. Not for your average Sunday driver, this stuff.

‘It was an important thing from our client’s perspective to try for something that didn’t look like just another reality show,’ says Brian DiLorenzo, director of integrated content for BBDO, New York. ‘We wanted to show the dust and the grit and if a truck got dented or scraped, then so be it. We knew we needed to shoot these things in a dramatic way so an action film director seemed like the route to take.’ DiLorenzo says Scott was excited to shoot his first reality-style films. ‘Our carrot to Tony was, ‘How about we give you some real guys, as this is a reality show, but you get to put them in an action film?”

The online series got a half-ton trailer’s worth of buzz. DiLorenzo says that from the stats he’s seen, the average user clicking on to stayed for 17 minutes – long enough to watch all of the episodes, and tune out for the credits. (Just like real TV!) Currently, in a bit of an about-face from the traditional paradigm where a series lives on TV first and then hits the web in some form, BBDO, Chrysler and Tony Scott are in talks with interested networks about bringing the Challenge to the tube.

Indeed, marketers may have an edge on the television world in terms of successfully integrating an online strategy with broadcast for a client or property. After all, ad folks have been clogging social networking and video sharing sites with ‘virals’ for several years now. As Miller puts it, the multimedia savvy of an agency or a prodco like @radical that works in branded content can only help generate buzz and, importantly, numbers for any project.

‘We created about 72 pieces of online content that we sprinkled around,’ she says about the online initiative for Two Roads to Baja. ‘Some was for a chronological series that we featured on and then there were things placed on relevant websites for extreme sports enthusiasts or off-road fans. So we got a lot of blog chatter. From there they were directed to watch the show on Speed.’ The show, originally scheduled to run six times on the network, was given additional airings due to popular demand.

All of which suggests that brands can exist within television programs in a way that doesn’t make you instinctively reach for the remote. Friedman says that with the advent of promotional development execs at certain networks – tasked to be the ‘middlemen’ between ad sales and programming departments – the bridge between an advertiser and a show’s creative team is a little less creaky. And in the current economy, where programming budgets and promotional budgets are both being sliced and diced, what’s referred to as ‘client supported’ programming can serve as a tonic for trying times.

But it can be a tricky line to tread. ‘Branded content right now is very fragile, and that’s because there are people who are going to mess it up,’ concludes Friedman. ‘It’ll only be as effective as a concept as the [final] product itself is.’

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