While the very phrase "product placement" elicits jeers and hisses in the TV and movie worlds, on the web something surprising has been happening:
Branded content is emerging as not just a promising way to make money, but as creatively viable as well.
Take Ashton Kutcher’s “Blah Girls,” which features sassy teen celebrity-bloggers who pause occasionally to quaff VitaminWater as they chase celebrity dirt.
That show was dreamed up by Kutcher’s company, Katalyst Media. But in some cases, the show can be the brainchild of the advertiser itself.
That is the arrangement behind the online show “In the Motherhood,” which was “conceived by Suave and Sprint.” In it, characters casually apply Suave products as they play out the everyday dramas of motherhood.
The show, which starred Leah Remini, Chelsea Handler and Jenny McCarthy, developed such a strong following that it was bought by ABC, where it will premiere March 26 — product placement mostly intact.
Then there’s “Celia & Chloe” — a new teen series with three-minute episodes streamed on YouTube and other sites. Thirty-two seconds into the first episode, the camera pans to a Hannah Montana poster on a bedroom wall.
At 54 seconds, one of the characters washes her face with Clean and Clear.
Of course, “Celia & Chloe” is sponsored by, yes, Disney and Johnson & Johnson — the storyline follows two high-spirited British teens determined to score tickets to the European premiere of Disney’s “Hannah Montana.”
It’s a revenue-generating development that has been sorely needed for web-based entertainment.
Like most things on the web, there was no cash in sight when “Lonelygirl 15” kicked off a new grass-roots genre in 2006, but the future seemed filled with lucrative possibility.
Since then, the web series genre has matured — but monetizing it has remained a challenge. And the short length of the episodes hasn’t helped.
According to a study released last week by the Center for Media Studies, while the vast majority of video consumers find it "very" or "somewhat reasonable" to sit through ads during full-length TV shows and movies,” there are “fewer … ready to accept this ‘price of admission’ for shorter-form content.”
Which translates to: We’ll watch 30 seconds of ads before settling down for an hour of “Lost,” but not to see a quickie episode that’s barely longer than the commercial itself.
Even a 10-second ad can seem like too much to ask before a three-minute show.
Enter “branded content,” which takes “product placement” a step further by aligning the show with the brand’s identity in a way that, ideally, feels organic and not intrusive.
But even outside the corporate realm, branded content has appeal for web-series makers. During last year’s writer’s strike, fledgling web production companies started by actors and writers saw it as a way to circumvent networks and their endless notes and micro-managing by working directly with the advertiser. And for start-ups, the level of risk is also appealing.
“It’s a model we like in particular because it’s not like when you have an investor involved and you’re liable for the money,” said Justine Bateman, co-director of the indy web-TV company FM78.tv.
The hurdle is finding the right sponsor for a show conceived by someone else.
Bateman and FM78.tv have been working on a web series called “Candy Inc.,” about a family-owned candy company whose heir apparent, played by Bateman, does not want anything to do with it. The company has been trying to finalize a sponsorship deal since last summer. The show was scheduled to launch this spring, but the original candy company they’d been working with “turned out not to be a good fit,” Bateman said.
Bateman pointed out that raising money for any independent project rarely happens quickly. “In truth, there’s not much difference between the independent film model and our sponsorship-funded model as far as the time it takes to raise funds,” she said.
As for the artistic integrity question, she’s not concerned. “The sponsor model is not about creating a long commercial,” she said. “It’s ‘associative advertising,’ like what American Express did in the early 1970s. They made you want to have an American Express Card if you were a certain kind of person, who traveled in a certain way.”
Back in the broadcast TV world, meanwhile, even when branded or sponsored content is involved, commercials do not appear to be going away any time soon. “In the Motherhood” now lives on the ABC site, where the sneak preview actually begins with a commercial.
And when the show runs on in prime time — with a tagline saying it’s “based on” the web series, though it will feature Megan Mullaly and Cheryl Hines playing different characters from the web series — there will be commercials.
The integration will continue as well, with Suave and Sprint involved in some — but not all — episodes, according to an ABC spokesperson.
Among the small but growing community of web TV makers, meanwhile, branded content is welcome at the creative table. At the first annual Streamy Awards on Saturday — an event put on by the newly minted International Academy of Web Television — among traditional award categories that emulate the Emmys or Oscars is “Best Ad Integration in a Web Series.”
"When we were coming up with the ideas for the categories, we thought, ‘What are some of the big issues that content creators face?’" said Josh Cohen, co-founder of Tilzy.tv and a founding member of IAWT. "It’s something that content creators feel strongly about, and viewers do too — if it’s done badly they’re pissed off, but if it’s done well they actually like it and think it’s clever."