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The Plot Is the Pitch

There are short films, and then there are very short films. How short? Six films on a Web site that is scheduled to go live today run 60 to 90 seconds each — about as long as it takes to brew a cup of espresso.

Those running times are no coincidence: the Web site (espressoshorts.com) is sponsored by the appliance maker Krups to promote a line of espresso makers being introduced in the United States. Krups also plans to circulate “Espresso Shorts,” created by film students at New York University, on Web sites like video.google.com and youtube.com, and to underwrite a series of movie-related promotions that include a sponsorship of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

The short films are another example of a trend that is remaking the marketing landscape, known as branded entertainment. Rather than just buying commercial time during TV shows — for 30-second spots that viewers often skip or zip through — advertisers are paying to commission programming that incorporates products into the plot lines.

Such sponsored programming also gives advertisers more control over the environments in which their pitches appear. Compare that with the problem faced by marketers planning to buy commercials during the new season of “Survivor” when they learned that the producer, Mark Burnett, would divide the teams along racial and ethnic lines.

“We need to find other, interesting ways to communicate with consumers,” said Steve Jones, marketing director at the North American unit of Krups in Medford, Mass., which is part of the French company Groupe SEB.

“We can say in a commercial, ‘We’re great,’ as many times as we like, and few people will believe it,” he added. “This is about getting involved with consumers to harness the power of word-of-mouth advertising, so they become the best ambassadors for our brand.”

Another example of a marketer participating in branded entertainment is the Acura division of the American Honda Motor Company, which on Sunday will introduce a sponsored campaign on the IFC cable network, part of the Rainbow Media Holdings unit of Cablevision Systems.

The campaign, promoting the 2007 Acura RDX, is being handled by the Acura agency, RPA in Santa Monica, Calif.

For the campaign, IFC is creating programming centered on the RDX, which will appear on the IFC channel, on its Web site (ifc.com), at the IFC Center movie theater in Greenwich Village and on Mag Rack, a video-on-demand network operated by Rainbow Media.

The centerpiece of the campaign is a series of short films under the title “The Projectionists,” presenting the adventures of four hip, 30-something guys — not unlike the Acura RDX target audience — who are film fans.

“For many consumers, especially tech-forward young men, the fast-forward button has become an important part of the television experience,” said Evan Shapiro, executive vice president and general manager at IFC.

As a result, advertisers need to underwrite what Mr. Shapiro refers to as “contextual messaging,” to make sure potential customers are exposed to their products.

The pitfall of branded entertainment is the inability of many advertisers to understand the difference between deftly weaving a product into a plot line and ham-handedly pushing it to the point that they annoy or alienate consumers.

For example, when critics reviewed “Bye Bye Love,” a 1995 movie about divorced parents, they focused as much on the prominent role played by McDonald’s restaurants as on the performances of the cast.

Some marketers involved with branded entertainment say they realize the delicacy of the balancing act.

“Our goal is for what we do to not feel like a sponsorship,” said Russell Weiner, vice president for colas marketing at Pepsi-Cola North America in Purchase, N.Y., part of the Pepsi-Cola Company unit of PepsiCo.

Since July 10, the Pepsi-Cola brand has been presenting to computer users “The 9,” a program produced by the Yahoo Studios division of Yahoo that can be watched at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on the entertainment section of yahoo.com.

The fast-paced show, which lasts five to six minutes, offers “viewsers” — as Mr. Weiner calls viewers of online programming — a roundup of nine offbeat video clips from various Web sites, and invites them to vote for a “Pepsi 10th,” a favorite clip of their own.

“We have creative control, but Pepsi is our partner,” said David Katz, head of Yahoo Studios and Yahoo Sports. “We’re in daily communication with them, which is more than they would ever get in the television world. They feel part of the process.”

At IFC, Mr. Shapiro said, the viewers are “a savvy audience, and they understand there’s commerce sometimes” amid the programming.

Still, the goal of the IFC staff members who create the sponsored content is to “protect the environment,” he said, referring to the network’s schedule, which calls for only 10 sponsored breaks a day and does not carry traditional commercials.

Another element of the Krups foray into branded entertainment is a contest among the six students who made the “Espresso Shorts” to select a winning film, as judged by Krups executives and Richard Brown, the film teacher. They chose “Espresso Ninjas,” a 90-second short by an actor-director named Young-H. Lee.

Mr. Lee said he was pleased that Krups was helping further his plans for a film career and was not bothered by a stipulation that the “Espresso Shorts” include as part of their plots a Krups espresso machine. In “Espresso Ninjas,” the desire to possess the Krups appliance sets off battles among ninjas who for some reason live in Manhattan.

“It’s a cutthroat business,” Mr. Lee said of filmmaking. “You need all the help you can get.”

“It’s fun to try to take something that’s not yours,” he added, referring to the sponsor’s product, “and incorporate it, express it, in a way that’s yours.”

Consumers with long memories recall previous efforts by advertisers at branded entertainment. In the early days of TV, and before that, during the so-called golden age of radio, advertisers and agencies owned the programs, with the networks serving as distributors.

Indeed, the idea of a “Pepsi 10th” on the Yahoo show “The 9” echoes a feature on a vintage branded-entertainment series, “Your Hit Parade,” a musical countdown on radio and TV. Songs that were not on the charts of top-selling records were played under the rubric of “Lucky Strike extras,” named after the show’s cigarette sponsor.


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 1, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.