Guest Column

Content is driven by money, and except in the earliest days of the ‘Net, when connection speeds were snail-paced, and the few sites worth visiting were labors of love, interest in it percolates only when someone thinks that they have figured out a new way of making it pay.

The pure content plays of the late 1990s were advertising-driven, but there was very little bang for a buck to be had from crude banner ads, and the content itself was constrained by connection speeds that were rarely more than 56.6 kbs. Few sites dependent on advertising or a subscription model managed to survive.

Today, those talking up the resurgence of digital media content have come up with a fresh angle. Instead of investing in the expensive development and production of content themselves, then seeking either an advertiser or a subscriber to make it pay, content producers are finding a single advertiser willing to underwrite the entire costs (including a generous profit margin for the producer dressed up as service fees) for a specific project.

It’s called brand entertainment, and as a buzz-word it has evolved in just a few short years from widespread product placement in feature films and TV series to a situation in which advertisers underwrite major portions of marketing and production budgets – and demand a large measure of creative control. Major automotive marquees and fast-moving consumer goods brands now pay high eight or even nine figures for a medium-term relationship with a successful movie franchise such as James Bond or Spider-Man. Amazon.com and BMW have produced short film series for the Web. And Federal Express’s managing director of global brand management reportedly worked for two years on the screenplay of Tom Hanks hit, “Cast Away.”

Nowadays product placement is no longer confined to visual media: according to the New York brand strategist, Agenda Inc., 649 brands have been mentioned in songs in the U.S. Billboard chart this year alone, with artists such as Jay-Z, 50 Cents, Lil’ Kim and even the execrable Jessica Simpson being paid incomprehensible sums to include brands ranging from Lincoln to Levi-Strauss in their chart-topping songs (although none come close to Kanye West who has name-checked 19 brands in just four releases — everything from Toys ‘R’ Us and Avis Rent-a-Car and more than one Lexus model!).

The bounty of brand entertainment has become too rich for digital media players to ignore. Besides, it meshes well with one of the biggest lures of the advertising dollar — to find an audience beyond the dwindling numbers that still pay attention to print ads and 30-second primetime TV spots, for which, anyway, the metrics of response are largely a matter of informed guesswork.

With the emergence of interactive and on-demand digital TV, the wider distribution and tiered, fixed pricing of broadband access, and the popularity of small, heavily featured, color-screen mobile devices, audience attention, still the gold standard of old new and old media (and the only thing for which those with cold, hard cash are willing to trade), is becoming fragmented and scattered — no longer a mass, but the “million-fold audience of just one” that was envisioned long before the dot-com bubble burst but which has taken another half a decade to become a viable reality.

The trouble is, the new audience’s attention is transitory and distracted; it’s not easily captured. The trick is to deliver content that meets the audience’s fast-shifting needs and expectations in a multi-dimensional, interactive environment that now encompasses the home, the office and many points in between. Unbounded by traditional demographic references, the digital consumer’s use of media is increasingly sophisticated and complex, marked by a demand for instant, individualized access everywhere, all the time.

Brand entertainment deals are no longer just about product placement or program sponsorship. They are wide-ranging, complex arrangements that might encompass a number of content elements delivered though different media, each targeting a narrow demographic or consumer segment.

Brand entertainment is insidious, blurring if not dissolving completely the traditional boundaries between marketing and the emotional manipulation of all good, immersive entertainment, whether it’s an hour-long TV episode, a pop song, a sports event or a video game.

For the moment, audiences are going along with it, perhaps unaware of the soft sell that is in every frame of whatever they might be watching or every bar of the catchy tunes they hum. But advertisers are, almost by definition, greedy. It won’t take long before they try to make a grab for all of our attention wherever it is to be found, and instead of even pretending to pay lip service to the idea of permission marketing that should be embedded in every brand strategy of the information age, they will overplay their messages through all media they way they have for half a century in television and print, forgetting that we will have the option to click out, filter, erase, or insert a new preference.

Intolerance will become the default setting of the 21st century digital consumer.

O’Hanlon is a media futurist who advises corporate clients on both sides of the Pacific.

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