Some big marketers, tired of seeing their spots skipped, are looking to make not just ads to appear with shows, but the shows as well.
These companies, often using ad agencies, are creating their own TV shows, movies, Internet sites and online games, which they hope will be entertaining enough to endear viewers to the brands behind them.
Marketers have become increasingly alarmed as consumers have gotten better at bypassing commercials using digital video recorders like TiVo, and spend more time flipping among a wide array of television networks, Internet sites and video games.
"It's the exploration of sort of a new world," said Doug Powell, chief executive of Maiden Lane, an advertising agency. "Clients would love to have a way for customers to be able to participate with their brands more often and not have to rely on the traditional media world to make those contacts."
Marketers making this content are quick to say they still plan to advertise.
"We're continuing our traditional advertising - TV, radio, print, online - but we're adding content to that," said Vic Walia, the senior brand manager for Snickers, a Mars brand that created a mini TV show called "Instant Def" that it posted online. "What we're trying to do is find new ways to continue to be relevant to teens and to young adults."
The "Instant Def" home page looks like a video game targeting teens. Four hip-hop stars - played by the actual hip-hop stars will.i.am, Fergie, Taboo and apl.de.ap - pose in front of a gritty urban scene. A fluorescent Snickers sign blinks atop a tower in the background. A Snickers factory played a central role in the first episode, when a candy-mix explosion gave the stars super powers.
About one million people have visited InstantDef.com where the five episodes are displayed. "If we create content that is relevant and entertaining, then we end up having a pull element where they seek us out," Walia said.
Advertiser-produced content - called branded content in the ad industry - is nascent. While most consumer brands have paid to have products placed in TV shows and movies, only a few dozen have taken a step beyond to create the content from scratch. About 25 national companies have circulated online films that went beyond simple commercials this year, up from 5 last year, said Matt Wasserlauf, chief executive of Broadband Enterprises, a company in New York that provides an online video network to companies like Warner Brothers and AT&T.
On TV, only a handful of such shows and movies have aired. Cable networks like MTV, ABC Family and TNT have run shows created by advertisers, and other networks, including broadcast networks, say they have been approached by advertisers looking to pitch shows.
Advertisers say the media content they create offers networks the advantage of being free, or exchanged for commercial air time, as the networks look to trim costs. NBC Universal recently acknowledged that its prime-time shows have become more costly and said that it planned to run more reality and game shows, which are typically cheaper to produce, in its 8 p.m. hour.
"We're addressing rising production costs, but that doesn't mean that our programming budget has changed," said a spokeswoman for NBC. "It hasn't at all. Our programming budget remains the same." Other network executives voiced skepticism that advertiser- created shows would draw much of an audience and said that, for now, they did not plan to run much of it.
"The networks are reluctant to give up their programming air over to advertiser-funded content," said Guy McCarter, director of branded entertainment at OMD, a media-buying agency that is part of the Omnicom Group. "If the TV marketplace softens, then I think there's going to be more receptivity."
Executives at networks that have aired advertiser-produced shows said the ultimate decision on content remained theirs. "Our network has final say on what goes on our air," said Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of ad sales and marketing for Turner Entertainment, which recently ran a show produced by Chase Manhattan bank on TBS. Shows and movies that Turner airs, she said, "first and foremost have to fit our brand."
Advertisers are also making movies. Burger King is currently creating a feature film that will heavily feature the chain and, perhaps, its "King" character. Last December, Mountain Dew, a PepsiCo brand, produced a movie about snow-boarding that ran in theaters across the United States. Though Mountain Dew produced the movie, the soft drink was not featured in the film and only "MD Productions" appeared in the credits. Viewers had to be in the know to associate the movie with Mountain Dew. A PepsiCo spokeswoman, Nicole Bradley, said that that approach worked better. "Focusing on product placement would have only been a distraction," she said.
The line between commercialization and entertainment is a tricky one in branded content, ad executives said. Companies and agencies making such content often call their intended consumers "viewers" rather than "customers," which emphasizes the blurry line they are walking.
Before a Unilever-produced program called "The Gamekillers" aired on MTV last spring, the network promoted it as a TV show and Unilever held off on running ads related to it. It was only after the program aired that characters from the show were included in ads for Unilever's Axe deodorant, said John Shea, executive vice president of integrated marketing and brand partnerships at MTV.
"The last thing anyone of us wanted was for the show to feel that it was, in fact, an ad," said Shea, adding that the approach seemed to have worked and that another "Gamekillers" show is in the works for next spring.
Anheuser-Busch is making an aggressive push into content creation. The beer company, famous for its funny commercials, plans to start a seven- channel television-like network called BudTV online in February. "If we do it right, then we're going to have a pretty attractive demographic group," said Anthony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch.
Ad executives said BudTV might be attractive to other advertisers as well.
"If BudTV can garner the right audience relative to that male 24-to-32 middle-income demographic in flyover states, there will be other advertisers that are going to want to reach that audience," said Doug Scott, executive director of branded content at Ogilvy and Mather, an ad agency subsidiary of the WPP Group. "All of a sudden, the brand that was using that as a marketing platform for themselves is now making income. They will be in the media business, which turns the entire model upside-down."
Networks, magazines and sports associations like the National Football League have already approached Anheuser-Busch about possible partnerships, Ponturo said. But BudTV's content is being paid for out of the company's marketing budget, rather than as a new business unit, and Ponturo said the content would "serve one master, and that's ourselves and our brands."
Louise Story, The New York Times. November 2, 2006
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