Branded Content: When Corporations Become Creators

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“You don’t need to wedge in logos or present a fake scenario to your consumers. Be honest. Find a relevant story and people will love your work & respect the brand.” – Alana Hutton Shaw, Hare Meets Tortoise

The ongoing convergence of the film and TV industries was a hot topic at April’s MipTV, particularly following Miramax’s announcement that they are to offer their theatrical back catalogue for TV adaptations. Yet the bigger blurring of boundaries surely comes in the advertising sector, as so-called ‘branded content’ begins to make its mark. Netribution’s Nic Wistreich takes a closer look.

The relationship between film, television and advertising is nothing new; indeed, the term soap opera originally referred to the radio dramas that were sponsored by soap manufacturers. And faced with a web generation who are reluctant to pay for their entertainment, branded content is one way of funding stories; the backer simply wants the content to reach as wide an audience as possible. It’s certainly easy to see why it’s an attractive space for advertisers; Jean Claude van Damme’s ‘Enya Splits’ commercial, for example, made an estimated $170m for Volvo, achieving over 70 million views on YouTube without anyone paying a cent for airtime.

The nature of the engagement between brands and content varies considerably. At one end of the spectrum is traditional sponsorship, such as Stella Artois and Orange’s involvement with theatrical releases and Skoda’s purchase of VOD streams for a number of independent documentaries. At the other end is in-house branded production, such as Red Bull Media House; a fully owned subsidiary of Red Bull, it finances, produces and sells content which mainly revolves around the adrenaline sports theme with which the drink is closely associated. Recouping their costs through sales and commissions, they now have subsidiary producers that have no Red Bull branding at all; Terra Mater Factual and Servus TV.

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Red Bull are not the only brand to produce and sell filmed content without overtly stating their involvement. Shell Creative Visual—the internal production arm of Shell Oil—distributes its rumoured £60m production budget through a network of producers, including BAFTA-winning Endemol subsidiary Darlow Smithson Productions. While most of their productions are corporate video, Shell Creative Visual also sells creative content to international broadcasters; most recently, a series to Fox USA. And the only indication to viewers that the oil company is behind the programme is a copyright name including ‘Shell’ in the credits.

And this would seem to be the space where regulation has yet to catch up. For most TV content, brand involvement—from product placement to the content of adverts—is strictly regulated, yet the web is monitored far less. If Shell can quietly sell its productions to mainstream TV, then who knows how much is being released online silently by brands. But, as a YouTube executive told me at the festival, one key lesson with online video is to be honest. Backlashes against big companies pretending to be something they are not are often fierce, and damaging.

There’s an important difference between corporate advertorial masquerading as art and a hands-off sponsorship that allows good stories to get told. For instance, Nokia Music recently commissioned six documentaries on the birth of modern music in six US cities, which also drew attention to emerging artists in those cities. Nokia stayed hands-off in the creative and post-production process, and simply branded the website that the films eventually appeared on. “You don’t need to wedge in logos or present a fake scenario to your consumers” explains Alana Hutton-Shaw of Hare Meets Tortoise, who worked on the project.  “Be honest.  Find a relevant story and people will love your work & respect the brand.”

So what’s the future of branded content? Speaking at MipTV Asta Wellejus, of Die Asta Experience, suggested that the relationship between art and brands could be closer to the centuries-old patronage model;  in other words, hands -off and transparent. And  Jason DaPonte of The Swarm, asked panellists if there should be a kite mark for work that has been funded through a brand—equivalent to a newspaper’s ‘advertisement feature’—coupled with an industry-agreed set of best practices. For this lucrative space to develop, great care should be taken to avoid a situation in which big companies can buy themselves a cheap broadcast of commercially helpful misinformation; be that through regulation or the burgeoning industry being pro-active.