In my last blog entry I shared a portion of my conversation with David LaFontaine —an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication who also works as consultant to Silicon Valley startups and partner in the Los Angeles-based DigitalFamily.com consultancy.

There we talked about product placement. Here we dig a little deeper, into branded content and the art of storytelling. Dave’s wife, Janine Warner, who was patched into the conference call, adds a few thoughts toward the end.

KF: Not long I had a conversation with Anita Elberse, who wrote the book Blockbusters. She urges the entertainment industry to shoot for the moon, even if it means wearing the tread off of tired old formulas. Her point: If you worry about things like formula, then you are an out-of-touch aesthete who never goes to movies anyway—so Hollywood is uninterested in you. You on the same page?

DL: I can tell you this—Hollywood is freaking out right now because what’s happening to saturation advertising. It’s like anything. After a while you have to keep upping the dosage. Think about the marketing campaigns for these movies. You’ve got a $150 million movie. Well, now your marketing campaign is another $150 million. That’s a lot of money to be throwing down at the bottom line.

What this means for your average company is that you’ve got all these people that are just being bombarded with media messages every day. And the public’s reaction to this has been to grow the mental antibodies to start tuning it out. That’s where you hear people at advertising conferences talking about “banner blindness.”

KF: Alberse knows about all that. Her point is that companies should go for broke anyway, because the reward is worth the risk.

DL: Yeah, they figure it is still safer. Anyway, they figure, you make that money back on foreign pre-sales before you ever shoot a frame. You say, I’ve got this movie, ‘Blowing Shit Up, Part III,’ and I can sell it to the emerging markets.

But that only works if it is not a comedy movie in these markets where people don’t understand comedy. Or it’s not a love story, which is different across cultural barriers. It almost has to be a movie with lots of special effects and people with guns and crazy visuals.

But how many times can you see the world being destroyed in CGI special effects? Apparently a lot. But we may be coming to the end of that.

KF: When did this trend toward carpet-bomb advertising start in a big way?

DL: This all started in 1989 with the movie “Batman.” If you remember, Batman: The Marketing Campaign was just a revelation. That was the first time we ever saw absolute saturation advertising across every conceivable advertising platform. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, billboards, t-shirts, keychains, cereal boxes. Everything was Batman! until, by the time the movie came out, everyone went, “All right, all right, already! I’ll see the movie!”

And the movie went on to make a ton of money and everybody in Hollywood went, “Ooh! See? We can make a craptastic movie and if we just market the living shit out of it, people will go see it and we will make oodles and boodles of money!”

KF: Conversations like this always steer toward the exotic example of films. But what are the implications, for example, to a Fortune 100 software company?

DL: So you have a software company. Not even Microsoft. Let’s say Adobe, or whatever—somebody who wants to roll out this new software. They want to get people excited about it and thinking, “Yeah, I want to shell out for this new version!”

KF: The problem is how do you reach those people?

DL: Right. How do you convince them? They are not watching TV, not reading newspapers, barely reading magazines anymore. Maybe they’re listening to radio a little bit, but increasingly they’re listening to podcasts or Spotify. So, OK, we’ll advertise on the Internet with Google ads. But before people search for it on Google, they’ve got to know the damned thing exists, right?

So that’s where you start looking at crafting storytelling. And coming up with something that is quirky, something that is funny.

KF: OK, so tell me about where branded content is headed.

DL: That has been the hot new topic for maybe the last year and a half. The best example of that—and the one that everybody wants, but is afraid of—is the Red Bull Stratos jump.

A crazy Austrian guy jumped from 40 miles above the earth, and everybody was watching that thing. Everybody knows about it. As a piece of branded content, you couldn’t have gotten better.

KF: Why did Red Bull do it?

DL: The sports energy drink market used to be Red Bull’s alone. Then came Rockstar and all the other competitors, because there is a ton of money to be made in this stuff. Red Bull was slipping and losing market share and cachet. So they said, ‘OK, let’s roll the dice and sponsor this craziness, even if there is a fairly decent chance that this guy is going to die.’ He might’ve burned up during reentry and then we’d have heard screams as he is frying like a bug in a bug zapper.

But this was their brand—they were daring and willing to roll the dice on it. And the reward for it was I don’t know how many of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of measurable brand exposure. And brand advertising like that really leaves an impression, really moves the needle.

Janine Warner: That is kind of the extreme of branded content. That actually propelled them to the point where they actually could become almost any kind of company they want. I mean, Red Bull could make blue jeans now and people would buy it.

But on the other end of that spectrum, the low end of branded content is a company writes a blog post for you and you post a blog with their message in it, and it’s pretty close to what we used to call paid advertising. There is a very slippery slope of editorial integrity that people have to watch.

KF: So what does it all mean?

DL: This means that a company has to figure out how to talk to its customers as if they were human beings. And that gets back to what that means to people like you and me—creatives—and storytelling.

I go back to the old Clue Train Manifesto. It’s almost 14 years old now. But that book still has the wisdom—which most companies still haven’t clued in on—that people don’t want to be marketed to. We want to buy. But we don’t want people to sell us on something.

So you have to tell your story in a way that people come away from it not feeling like you’re the high-pressure salesman. You know, the old Batman saturation advertising campaign. Yet there has to be enough humanity and quirkiness and depth and emotion and skill in there so that you walk away going, “OK, that’s actually kind of cool, I’ve got to check that out next time at the store.”

That is the challenge.

Topics: Branded Content, Design & Development, Marketing, Saturation advertising

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ABOUT Kevin

Kevin Featherly is a creative content specialist with more than two decades of experience in writing, videography, photography and graphics production. He is a former managing editor with Washington Post Newsweek Interactive and former news editor for McGraw-Hill’s Healthcare Informatics. Learn more about Kevin at: www.featherly.com
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