The steamroller called branded entertainment, in which advertisers show their wares in longer-form narrative films instead of commercials, is barreling ahead with new productions from marketers like Visa and Sears, Roebuck & Company. New entries into what some call "advertainment" moreover, are pushing the genre beyond its early home online and onto television, movie screens and DVD's.
Last night, for example, "Sports- Center" on ESPN began showing installments of "The Scout presented by Craftsman at Sears," a six-minute story about a washed-up baseball scout who discovers a stunningly talented stadium groundskeeper. Each 90-second episode of "The Scout" will be introduced to viewers as part of ESPN Shorts, a new initiative by the channel to integrate marketers' brands into short films. In May, ESPN Shorts will begin showing a six-minute short from the Miller Brewing division of SABMiller, focusing on a Boston family's passion for baseball.
At the same time, Film Movement in New York has begun packaging sponsored shorts with the feature films it distributes both on DVD's and to art-house theaters. One DVD includes "The Ecology of Love," a 17-minute story backed by Visa and Details magazine and starring Pharrell Williams, the rising hip-hop star and producer; another includes "Friday Night Fever," sponsored by DKNY and Details. Terms of the deals have not been disclosed.
The new productions work to avoid seeming like traditional, hard-selling commercials. In the 17 minutes of "The Ecology of Love," for instance, the protagonist's Visa card appears for only moments. Likewise, the groundskeeper of "The Scout" rides a Craftsman tractor, but the focus remains on the characters.
"This is the first time that we have ever engaged in such a project," said Touré Claiborne, director for brand marketing at Sears. "This is truly a new nontraditional way for us to represent our brand and our lawn and garden business in a space that a lot of people pay attention to on a daily basis."
The motivation to entertain consumers, rather than persuade them through traditional advertising, stems from a changing media landscape in which consumers increasingly avoid, tune out or fast-forward through marketing messages.
"A lot of brands right now are seeing that their general advertising, especially with the advent of TiVo, consumers are able to skip," said Michael Davis, vice president and director for broadcast and interactive at Draft in Chicago, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
In 2001, the North American division of BMW became a pioneer of branded entertainment, with the "BMW Films," a series of long commercials made by well-known directors
"'BMW Films' is a great example of taking a branded message and still keep it sexy, keep it relevant for the consumer, offer them entertainment and give them a reason to buy," Mr. Davis said.
That effort and those that have followed, including the five-minute commercials for American Express introduced last month as well as short films from DKNY, have largely been distributed through the Web. "The Scout" and the Miller series to follow will gain a much larger audience by appearing on "SportsCenter," where anchors or ESPN announcers will introduce them.
ESPN executives said they recruited agencies from their own roster to create the Sears and Miller shorts to ensure the work stood out. "Some of the fear was that if their agencies do it, it becomes too advertising-centric," said Sean Hanrahan, senior vice president for strategic marketing and promotions at ESPN, part of the Walt Disney Company.
"The Scout" was created by the BrightHouse Live division of BrightHouse in Atlanta. Jerry Cronin, chief creative officer at BrightHouse Live, described the short as a response to "so much stimuli in the world."
"With only so many 30-second spots available and so many billboards on the highway, you've got to look somewhere else sometimes," Mr. Cronin said. BrightHouse and Sears conferred frequently on the project, with the agency presenting several different ideas before striking a tone that Sears endorsed.
ESPN Shorts, which are being shown during segments of "Sports- Center" rather than during commercial breaks, are improvements over product placement, another ESPN executive said.
"What is smart about ESPN Shorts is that the use of the products in these particular communications work and advance the story," said Ed Erhardt, president for consumer marketing and sales at ESPN. "That's far different than a vehicle or a can of a beverage showing up somewhere."
A Visa executive agreed that branded entertainment offered the sponsor advantages over product placement. "We worked very collaboratively with Film Movement," said Kim Randall, vice president at the Visa, part of Visa International. "We really wanted Visa to have a presence, but didn't want it to be blatant."
"We did not give them ultimatums," Ms. Randall said.
Film Movement, which says nearly 10,000 subscribers receive its monthly DVD's, emphasized the art-house nature of its films when approaching potential sponsors.
"We really felt that going to brands to help them promote the idea of supporting films - that are maybe more interesting and need more of a leg up than 'Spider-Man' does - was a great way to find partners," Larry Meistrich, the chief executive, said. At the same time, of course, the support helps the bottom line at Film Movement. "We're not a charity," Mr. Meistrich said.
One big unanswered question is how much marketing money could eventually be diverted from traditional campaigns into branded films. While measuring the return on traditional advertising expenditures is difficult, gauging the impact of branded entertainment is even harder, marketers said.
"The measure becomes the buzz," said Anjali Lewis, vice president for marketing at DKNY, which is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. "Return on investment in terms of how much clothing we sell is going to be hard to measure," she added. "It's really going to be about how many people are talking about DKNY."
For its part, "Friday Night Fever" begins with an on-screen credit for DKNY and Details, but then settles into a narrative that only emphasizes clothing at the end. Even then it is not apparent the clothes are from DKNY. And like most marketers experimenting with advertainment, DKNY will simultaneously stick to its traditional strategies.
"We are still doing what we've always been doing," Ms. Lewis, the DKNY executive, said. "Print is still incredibly important." She added, "Thank God, knock on wood, we don't have to deal with a TiVo for print."
Nat Ives, The New York Times. April 21, 2004
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