The global media and planning agency OMD is
urging advertisers to think about “branded content” as a way to “cut
through” on new, seemingly advertising-free media platforms such as broadband
download, podcasts, blogs and mobile phones.

What is branded content? Nothing new. We
tend to forget that “soaps” got their name because they were originally
commissioned by advertisers to sell their soap powder. Now advertisers are once
again talking about commissioning drama so they can blend the advertising
message with the content.

The rhetoric is about “value adding” commercial
messages to overcome citizen cynicism. The ideal, from the advertiser’s point
of view, is that debate, interaction and entertainment are infused with
commercial messages.

An example that backfired was the new Zero
Coke, launched on a blog site as a fake counter-culture campaign. This was controversial in the blogosphere. As AdNews editorialised, it is to be hoped that “the irony of being burned by a
grass-roots movement for creating a false grass roots movement is not lost on
Coke”.

But we shouldn’t feel too reassured. Look
at the same sort of thing, done better and with just enough transparency by
Telstra. Here it has political implications.

This week also saw the launch of Telstra’s
Bigpond Movie Download service. The main way these movies will be paid for is
by the viewer, but advertising agencies are already talking about a different
revenue model.

It might work like this. You can pay for
your movie, or you can pay less or nothing if you agree to watch ads. The
third, more insidious possibility, is that you pay for the movie and watch it
believing it to be ad free, but get a commercial message without even noticing
– through the old game of product placement, but also the new “value adding” model – making the message of
the movie indistinguishable from the “value” of the product.

Perhaps it isn’t so new. Propaganda in
movies is an old game – but that was when politics mattered more than products. Does any of this matter? Are citizens (or
should we call them consumers) smart enough to cope?

The director for group marketing at Nestle,
Ian Alwill, has
suggested it would
be unethical to insert advertising messages in news and current events
programs, but there is no problem with entertainment. But how is
this distinction to be drawn? John Laws claimed that he was an
entertainer, not a journalist.

And what about reality television? At one end of the spectrum, Channel Seven’s
Border Security verges on current affairs documentary. At the other end there
is the product placement kingdom of Big
Brother
, and The Biggest Loser, where
the “value added” commercial is inseparable from the premise of the show. The
fitness chain Fitness First is sponsoring the Biggest Loser Club where viewers can “join the challenge” by setting their own weight loss goals.

They probably argue that it’s community
service.

Peter Fray

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