Branded Content & Celebrities: Everything Old is New Again

For Those Who Don’t Watch “Mad Men”
As television rose to dominance in the 1950’s, marketers turned to sponsorship to promote products: (e.g. “The Colgate Variety Hour”). In addition to the opening announcement, the star of the show would often appear on-screen during the show “break” to promote the marketers’ product, thereby integrating the content (editorial) with commercial message to produce branded content. The line between the show (content) and the commercial (advertising) was intentionally blurred, as in this ad for Pall Mall cigarettes, starring actor Lee Marvin from the popular “M Squad” tv crime show of 1957 – 1960.

Television studios pitched their show concepts to ad agencies, who then sold the sponsorships to their big brand clients. Sometimes, the concept flowed in reverse: the ad agency called the tv networks to ask for a show based on a client’s needs. Either way, there was always a tension between the content producers and the sponsors. TV show creatives were understandably nervous that their work would be seen as too commercial if the brand’s messaging was too heavy-handed; marketers worried that their brand would not get enough visibility, or that the message would be lost if it was not clearly stated and repeated often. Star performers were reluctant to “sell-out” and would often find ways to fulfill these contractual obligations while having a bit of fun with the audience, as in the opening minute of this clip from “The Buick-Berle Show.”

The Big Flip
The mid-1970’s ushered in an era of clear separation of editorial content and advertising, driven in part by a resurgence in journalism ethics and growing audience cynicism following Watergate, the Vietnam War and the 1950’s tv quiz show scandals.

Déja Vu: Sponsored Content Returns
Fast-forward to 2013, and clients are once more being invited to “co-operate on the creation of content” aka, branded content. As reported by the The NY Times and AdWeek OMD media hosted a first-of-its-kind “auction day for branded content.” Brands from 40 blue-chip companies took part, and bid for content using hand-held paddles bearing the words “plan” (we’re interested in this project ) and “brief” (not interested in this pitch, but we’d like to give you a brief—i.e. our own idea— to work from). Among the advertisers present were PepsiCo, FedEx, State Farm, GE, Toys R Us, Levi’s and JCPenney. According to OMD, “every client in attendance bid on at least one content producer’s ideas, and every producer had multiple client bids.” That’s a success by anyone’s standards.

The Big Difference in 2013
The difference between 1950 and 2013 is that this branded content will be broadcast across multiple channels (internet, tv, print, etc) and to a global audience. That makes the global contracts for talent, especially celebrity negotiations, that much more complicated (fret not, we can help you with that).

The Silver Lining
Content producers no longer have to worry quite so much about the quality of their work declining due to the heavy hand of the marketer. Why? The myriad choices available to consumers via the ’splinter-net’ guarantees that only the most entertaining content will survive. That puts a greater emphasis on story-telling than ever before—and more pressure on the creatives to produce great stuff. Audiences now vote with clicks, and smart marketers already know from their online metrics that branded content drives a lot more traffic and attention than hard-sell pitches. Overt messaging is dead. Story-telling is back in fashion. And that means higher quality advertising all around. And that makes everyone happy.