What do Bill Gates and a bucket of fried chicken have in common? More than you might think.
The software entrepreneur is known for co-founding technology giant Microsoft and for using the wealth he accrued there for philanthropic causes. In months to come, he might gain a wider reputation for helping Cadillac motor its way into shows distributed by CBS and Netflix or pouring Jose Cuervo tequila into a cameo on the IFC spoof “Documentary Now!”
Gates is the backer of the Branded Entertainment Network, a company that helps advertisers work their products and logos into movies, TV shows, and, more often these days, content streamed by some of the subscription-video-on-demand players as well as YouTube content produced by digital influencers. Once known as Corbis Entertainment, and known best for its work with image licensing, the company is now betting more heavily on a practice once commonly referred to as “product placement” to move forward.
“I feel like the winds of change are upon us,” said Gary Shenk, chief executive officer of Branded Entertainment Network, also known as BEN.
As more one-time couch potatoes migrate to new viewing behaviors like streaming video or video on demand, he said, advertisers want their messages in content, rather than surrounding programs with the same commercials viewers have tried to avoid for decades.
“Everything you read is about consumers moving to non-ad-supported programming,” he said in an interview. “I truly believe that entertainment is advertising’s new frontier.”
Product placement – often referred to today with industry jargon like “brand integration” – has been around since the dawn of television, as anyone who recalls watching Kraft Television Theater on NBC in 1948 might tell you. BEN hopes to add a new twist to the practice. The company has built a proprietary database that lists potential opportunities available for movies, TV programs and streaming-video shows heading into production, then estimates what the integrations might cost based on such factors as time on screen or whether the product is mentioned in dialogue. BEN has long had early access to scripts so executives can identify opportunities for advertisers to work with the production. One BEN client, Bushmills whiskey, will be used in the coming Warner Brothers’ film “Suicide Squad,” Shenk said.
BEN’s roots extend from a firm known as Norm Marshall & Associates, which specialized in getting advertisers’ products into the hands of propmasters, set dressers and producers. Those staffers, would use them to add a touch of real life to TV shows and movies. BEN typically negotiates between ad-buying firms and production crews, meaning it has little to do at present with the big deals that weave cars and gadgets into TV shows as well as the commercials that accompany them, though Shenk said the company is building new relationships with the TV networks.
These firms are behind the 2009 appearance, for instance, of a bottle of PepsiCo’s Izze Sparkling Pomegranate fruit beverage in the hands of actress Katherine Heigl in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” or the 2015 cameo of three beers brewed by Anheuser Busch InBev in an episode of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” More recently, said Shenk, BEN helped get a bucket of KFC on to the set of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and also works with the production staff of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show.
In some cases, the producers benefit because an advertiser helps offset the cost of making the show. But the money that changes hands doesn’t always flow to the TV network or studio involved with distribution of the content.
Such stuff has been negotiated for decades, but could gain more interest as advertisers fret about viewers who are growing increasingly resistant to the usual 30-second commercial. TV networks owned by Viacom, Time Warner’s Turner and 21st Century Fox are experimenting with reduced ad loads around certain programs and dayparts. The technique has some appeal in an era when viewers of programming on such venues as Hulu, Netflix or even video on demand on cable, are not forced to watch as many ads. Indeed, one of last year’s biggest ad splashes came from an appearance by Pepsi in three episodes of “Empire” on Fox – a drama that contains fewer than the usual number of commercial pitches.
Corbis bought Norm Marshall in 2012, and its portfolio also includes Splash, a feed of celebrity photography and videos, and Greenlight, a clearinghouse of access rights to film clips and celebrity images. It sold off its main image-licensing business to China’s Visual China Group earlier this year. The company is “currently losing money” as it invests in its new technology and database, said Shenk. “We will be profitable in early 2017.”
Gates has become more intrigued with the intersection of advertising and technology. BEN’s business “involves the world of content, but also the world of advertising, and just how those two come together,” said Shenk. “He’s very fascinated by it.”