Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as walking billboards in Talledega Nights.

Branded content (aka paid content, advertorial, product placement, native content) or whatever name you’d like to call it has long been a point of contention among content producers. It’s been around as long as there has been media –  I’m sure it can be found on cave paintings and hieroglyphics –  but there has always been a sense among many that it’s the ultimate “sell out.” There’s been a sense that it’s the final frontier of greedy movie and television producers, trying to squeeze yet another buck out of mainstream entertainment.

The perception of branded content as a “sell out” may have once been true, but I would contend that in the current age of crowd funded media it is a legitimate funding tool, especially for independents. My feeling is that the value (psychic and financial) of showing your work to a larger audience more than off sets any artistic compromises that you may have to make by making use of branded content or product placement. There are a few points and caveats to be made. First, obviously there’s proportion and common sense. You don’t want your latest content to look, read or sound like a paean to peanut M&M’s, so there have to be some limits. Second, advances in technology have made it possible to “narrowcast,” that is, to direct content to a select group or demographic. And one person’s advertising is another person’s content of choice. If you find the right audience people will actual welcome your branded content as valuable, useful and/or entertaining, it won’t be perceived as “intrusive” or unwelcome.

The modern history of product placement goes back to the Golden Age of Radio and Television where brands presented programming directly and without apology. Look no further than the costumed, musical quartet of Texaco “attendants” opening and closing Milton Berle‘s Texaco Star Theater or John Cameron Swayze, puffing away on air in the Camel News Caravan. How about the “Today Show’s” Willard Scott saluting the nation’s 100 year olds on behalf of Smuckers?

 

It’s my perception/memory that the “post-modern” era of product placement began with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on Bravo about a decade ago. Product placement was front and center as the straight guys in question received their personal and home makeovers. Then came the early seasons of Donald Trump‘s “The Apprentice” – please rest assured that I really do try to have a real life beyond my television habits. That’s where the train went off the tracks. I do remember episodes where the show supported the brand, as opposed to vice versa, and it was a lot like watching a one hour commercial. And that’s when I stopped watching.

Content branding is really about the quality of the content. The quality has to be enough to stand on its own and it’s the branding that helps to pay the bills. It’s also about balance. You can have too much of a good or even a neutral thing. There are recommended daily allowances. However, its up to the content producer to figure them out.

 

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