While this sounds like a contemporary media trend, the earliest TV programs were all branded content. Lately though, branding has found a natural home in digital and web media. And like the early TV sponsors, companies involved with branded content are actually willing to take some real chances. So maybe you didn’t envision branding for your project when you began, but this might actually be a less restrictive way to find additional financing. Branding companies seem to have a very loose definition of promotion, allowing clever filmmakers to find unusual ways to fit the product into their stories.
As Andy Warhol first pointed out, there’s really no line between advertisement and art. Product placements have become such a standard in entertainment that even the parodies have gone staler than a warm, flat can of Coca-Cola®. Still, the growing desperation to promote brand awareness in the digital age has become a valuable resource for content creators. Whether through branded content or product placement, companies may be more willing to take chances on emerging talent than traditional media players.
- Successful 21st-Century Film Producers will be Branding Specialists
Utilizing Branded Entertainment and Product Placement Without A-List Names
Before you start planning to have Microsoft and McDonald’s fund your web series or indie film, you might need to get a little more realistic. Without a real budget, a Brad Pitt or even a Jonah Hill, big brand name companies probably won’t pay you to feature their products. In fact, rather than covering your entire production costs in exchange for, say, your main character digging into a Big Mac, a company like McDonald’s will more likely sue for trademark infringement if even one half of a golden arch is visible on screen. But think about what your project actually needs. Do you have a scene set in a bar? Perhaps the friendly neighborhood Irish pub will let the production film there in exchange for a shot of the bar’s sign. Remember how you basically turned your craft services budget into peanut butter and crackers? Maybe a local bakery is will trade a few nice scenes featuring the storefront for craft services, so you can at least have artisanal peanut butter and crackers. Of course, if you really want to lure brand names to your project, you can also try to make their products an essential part of the story. For example, the film “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” has arguably done more for the eponymous burger company in the last decade than any paid advertisements. This is definitely more of a gamble – in fact, White Castle claims it played no role in funding Harold and Kumar’s journey. Still, there are certainly some artistic purists who can’t tolerate any sort of product placement or branded entertainment. However, there aren’t a whole bunch of patrons out there willing to spend millions to produce a film purely for the cinematic arts. And if your story is set in contemporary society, it’s set in a pretty damn consumerist world. Can we offer you some Kool-Aid?
On the other hand, product placement can be so blatant and groan-inducing that it detracts from the story. Does the hero really need to stop and have a Pepsi while he’s being chased by a bunch of zombies (*cough* “World War Z” *cough*)? At the same time, there is a legitimate debate over whether branded content is compelling narrative with corporate sponsorship or just advertising with better production values and occasionally big name talent. For instance, it’s nice that Target paid Kristen Bell to star in their “Falling For You” series (especially if you were one of the fans who crowdfunded the “Veronica Mars” movie), but it’s not like anyone is clamoring for more episodes (unlike the fans of the “Veronica Mars” TV series). Advertising is another storytelling medium, as well as a real industry that attracts a lot of talented, creative individuals. However, there does have to be a line between a story that promotes a brand and a brand that promotes a story. While the concept of selling out may itself be passé, content creators should have some respect for their own material. No one is saying that every storyteller has to be a martyr for narrative integrity. However, there’s probably something meaningful to you about your story, and it’s probably not worth the price of a Coke, or even sponsorship from Coca-Cola.
Ok, I’m Ready to Sell out. What Do I Need to Do?
So you’ve killed your high horse and beaten it too? Well, you probably shouldn’t go to PETA for a sponsorship. But if you are willing to produce branded content or are looking to feature some products, the best place to start is the advertising firms that handle the brands that interest you most or fits your story. Or if you happen to have friends who work in public relations or marketing, you can also try to go through them to make contact. If all else fails, try contacting the company directly. Particularly with the surge in branded content on the internet, there are also groups like the Entertainment Resource & Marketing Association (ERMA) which try to bridge the divide between brands and content creators for its members. In particular, ERMA actually allows creators to specify which brands they want to contact. And no, in case you’re wondering, ERMA has not paid any money for special mention in this post.