By Cynthia B. MeyersAT&T has produced a teen reality program, @summerbreak, seen not on TV but on social media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr. General Electric is sponsoring articles in the magazine The Economist. Pepsico has a blog site, Green- Label, devoted to skateboarding, rap music, and other interests of “millennial males.”
These examples of branded content, sometimes called content marketing or branded entertainment, are new versions of an old advertising strategy. Advertisers in the 1930s wanted to use a new medium, radio, but they were worried that advertising would alienate listeners. So they integrated the advertising into the entertainment, which they sponsored, controlled, and owned.
In the 1930s-50s, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn was the top advertising agency making “institutional advertising,” or corporate image advertising. Rather than sell a specific product, BBDO created ad campaigns for clients such as General Electric, General Motors, Du Pont, and US Steel that were designed to endear those large corporations to consumers, associating them with laudable values like progress, innovation, and growth. For example, in the 1920s BBDO made print ads for General Electric promoting the use of electricity generally.
In the 1930s, BBDO produced a radio program for General Motors, Parade of States, that celebrated the attractions in various US states that might be reached by automobile. For Du Pont, a chemicals manufacturer accused of war profiteering, BBDO produced Cavalcade of America, a radio docudrama about inventors and innovators. For US Steel, BBDO oversaw Theatre Guild on the Air (1945-53) a radio anthology program that presented a different live play every week in order to associate the “industrial family that serves the nation” with highbrow culture. When it shifted to television in 1953, the program was renamed US Steel Hour. BBDO worked to associate GE with highbrow culture in the 1950s anthology drama television program, General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. In each case, BBDO associated a corporate brand not with a product, but with a feeling.
Today, BBDO is helping produce branded content on digital platforms, especially for advertisers concerned with reaching audiences who may not see television commercials. BBDO’s client General Electric hopes that its sponsored articles in The Economist will convince readers of its commitment to innovative technology. BBDO’s client AT&T promotes cellular phone services with the reality series @summerbreak. The product placement is subtle. For example, teenagers near an airport use their phones to take “selfies” showing a plane taking off in the background. BBDO’s client Pepsico promotes its Mountain Dew brand with a site designed to appeal to its target market, young men, for which it has recruited music entertainers like Joey Badass.The Green Label site doesn’t interrupt viewers with obvious advertising, but it carefully brands all the entertainment with the green theme of the Mountain Dew packaging.
However, advertisers today, like advertisers of the past, face challenges integrating advertising and entertainment. As BBDO’s client Pepsi once learned after featuring Madonna in a 1989 television commercial, close association between advertiser and entertainer may lead to negative publicity. And the goals of the advertiser may conflict with those of the creative artists and producers. Nonetheless, now that audiences have so many options, advertisers and agencies believe that more advertising must resemble the content and entertainment that they think audiences want. More, not less, branded entertainment is in our future, just as it was in our past.
Cynthia B. Meyers is author of A Word from Our Sponsor published by Fordham University Press. She is an Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City. She received her Ph.D. in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin.