September 2006 - Per Inquiry

Eye of the Beholder

By Rick Petry

Now that the digital revolution has immolated the old TV advertising model by allowing consumers to watch what they want when they want without commercials, traditional advertisers are flocking to “branded entertainment.” Branded entertainment is Hollywood’s term for product placement embedded in the content of a show.

The theory is that if a commercial plug is woven into the fabric of the storyline, the audience simply can’t miss it. The gaping hole in this logic is the fact that this model still relies on ACNielsen’s tiny sample sizes to extrapolate viewing habits. Regardless, this movement raises the question of what exactly defines advertising and entertainment amid a culture where the average consumer receives thousands of promotional messages daily and every entertainment property of consequence is repurposed into an endless stream of goods…(Oprah, anyone?)

Across the pond, the regulators of the European Union have deemed branded entertainment verboten. Hence when “American Idol” is broadcast over there and Simon takes a sip from his ubiquitous Coke glass, the soft drink’s logo gets digitally fuzzy like the forbidden peaches in a Girls Gone Wild promo.

Amid this blurry picture, it would seem obvious that for regulators and consumers alike, what represents advertising versus entertainment is akin to what Justice Potter Stewart once said when asked to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” This is certainly true for young Sophie Ashton, a nine-year old whose ultimate idea of distraction is the Magic Bullet infomercial, recipient of last year’s ERA Award for “Best Long Form of the Year.” Sophie can breathlessly explain the entire program and is saving her allowance to buy the versatile appliance. A sample riff: “…and you can make a shake out of broccoli only it doesn’t taste bad but you still get all the nutrients and I tried to show my grandma the infomercial ’cause it comes on the TV Guide Channel at the same time every day only there was some crummy fitness infomercial on instead…” Sophie’s mother, incidentally, finds this obsession very amusing, a revelation some media watchdog group would undoubtedly deem horrifying.

When it comes to defining the “right” line between advertising and entertainment, it would seem beauty-or in this case booty-is in the eye of the beholder. It is another kind of beauty-that of the free enterprise system and free speech-that allows consumers to discern for themselves what is what. With all of the technology the public now has at their disposal, they have never been more empowered to make up their minds than they are “right here, right now.” (Say, is that a pop song or an ad jingle?)

Meanwhile, our industry must build a bridge between the worlds of branded entertainment and DRTV. After all, we’ve spent decades defining and refining techniques that both amuse and move product. If the time has come for the great Hollywood Sell Out, then isn’t it time we helped them sell out?

Rick Petry is the chief marketing officer of Downstream and the current chairman of the Board of the ERA. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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