"Somebody like Coke decides to create content like a network does or like Netflix is doing now. I can’t help but think that’s not only a possibility, but a certainty. We’ve seen so many fantastic TV shows over the years somehow fail in the ratings—Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development were critical darlings but the networks didn’t know how to make them succeed, and there are whispers of Community, one of the best comedies on TV, possibly getting the ax at some point. Maybe some of these critically-acclaimed, audience-lacking shows get picked up by a company like Coke, retaining all the creative people involved, and they find a way to incorporate the product into the show, or at the very least, simply have people watch new episodes on The Coca-Cola Channel. Big huge Coke logo surrounds a media player of some sort, and they just let the show be. If picking up shows like that work, who’s to stop them from making their own programs?"
Every brand will be a studio. ReelSEO.com
Not that this insight is in itself particularly new - brands have often had their fingers in the entertainment pie, supporting rather than advertising - viz. The Colgate Comedy Hour. Sort of, a step to the side of integrated branding. It’s not the Subway sandwich made into a plot element or - as the article mentions - ET following Reese’s pieces - but just brands following the focus of people’s attention. Hovering just to the right of the content itself and going, hey, we paid for this. and you like it. we’re kind of alike, aren’t we? we sort of like the same things. hey kid, i think you and me could reinforce each others’ cool…
But - as the article points out - it’s the emotional connection between audience & content that the brand is trying to leverage. It’s never going to be about “engaging content first, selling product second” - it’s selling product first, and if engaging content does that - then that’s what advertising will mutate into. But what will that world really look like? Will it be brands paying content creators to get the antagonists to drink their rivals’ soft drinks. Content creators threatening to ridicule a brand unless they’re given a healthy chunk of cash (aren’t there already stories about reality stars or celebrities “inappropriate” to luxury brands’ images being paid not to wear their products?).
All of which is fine - art isn’t some kind of ivory-clothed maiden unsullied by the touch of rough commercialism. It has always existed under the eyes and wandering hands of the marketplace of attention.
What might be different about branded content is the way in which we read our art - will the characters in our branded webseries and corporate-sponsored ARGs be reduced to consumers? Is their headache evidence of a brain-tumour or an excuse to do a cutaway of a packet of tylenol, are they starting an exercise regime because of that near-death experience last season or to showcase Nike shoes? Is that broken family getting back together because they’re worked through their issues or because it better represents Coca-cola’s brand values? How long before a brand-exec asks to tweak a piece of content to better appeal to the brand’s demographic?
In an ideal world - these choices would work in a personal/artistic context as well as a market one - but as viewers, we will necessarily begin to parse our texts commercially - whether the text calls for it or not, the characters will all live in a Gibsonian coolhunting future, all content layered over by a compulsive American Psycho narration of product-as-meaning.
Will anyone in a video be able to wear, buy, read, watch, mock, eat, drink or admire anything without the question of whether they’ve been bought off raising itself in the audience’s head?
(Another question: will brands start suing each other over their representations in branded content?)
Will this mean a focus on the contemporary-setting series? Or maybe even a move away from it - to avoid these kinds of choices? Or a kind of BBC-like artificially brandless world, full of Facepages and GNNs and Moogles?
Or maybe the studios will become the next brands? We’ve already got True Blood themed clubs - is it so hard to imagine a world where all real products begin their existence virtually, in a way the apotheosis of this idea of “brand values” - in their Aristotelian, screen-mediated form, the product is exactly what it wants to be, it has an emotional and narrative purpose - as seen on TV, and nowhere else, until its in your hand, and yours and yours. This already exists - American Girl dolls and Moshi Monsters already exploit this symbiosis - merchandising is the future.
Roll on Oceanic Airlines and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and True Blood cocktail mixes and Sex and the City clothing lines and Game of Thrones restaurants (oh wait, we already kinda had those.) Maybe the future of content is branding?