Neverending Stories

I recently read an article in The New York Times that talked about “the steamroller called branded entertainment.” I cringed. Once again, we in advertising show ourselves to be an industry of sheep. Someone does something new, and everyone is quick to copy, without the slightest regard as to whether it’s appropriate for the brand.

“Advertainment” is the clever title given this already abused format. While I applaud the pioneering creators of BMW Films for breaking new creative ground, there have been surprisingly few success stories among their many imitators. The recent Trojan condoms online spots have achieved their notoriety by pushing the limits of content rather than any innovation in format. Even the Seinfeld/American Express online films, while funny, come off as a little long-winded and don’t advance what was done in the original TV ad years ago. Hey, Jerry and Superman hanging out—that was funny. Once.

If you are not first to market, then you had better offer a hell of a lot more than your predecessor. Most of the me-too attempts seem to be emphasizing entertainment at the expense of relevance. It’s the emperor’s new clothes. I love the stories but in most instances fail to see the connection to the brand. It’s poor product placement and nothing more. Could you substitute another product and still tell the same story? In most cases, I think you could. This undermines the whole idea of branding, and it reinforces the perception that agencies are full of selfish creatives who are interested only in their own vanity.

There is nothing inherent in a longer format that makes a brand message immune to consumer apathy or outright hostility. To make a long-format film deliver, you have to do the same hard work as with any ad. The challenge of compressing an idea into a 30-second execution is replaced with the equally daunting challenge of extending an idea so it remains relevant and attention-holding throughout the longer format.

The real value of any agency is creative insight—finding an idea that illuminates a brand and its point of difference in a compelling way. That’s what we are paid to do. Selling clients on an extended execution in lieu of an idea is just irresponsible.

Maybe we should be thinking of ways to do better work in the existing formats before we rush off to break new ground. Having dumbed down the 30-second commercial, we are now forced to find new formats to ruin. Most “advertainment” reminds me of the loud American tourist who thinks if he yells in English loud enough and long enough, the French waiter will understand him.

The Times article went on to say that “the motivation to entertain consumers, rather than persuade them through traditional advertising, stems from a changing media landscape in which consumers increasingly avoid, tune out or fast-forward through marketing messages.” I’m sorry, but consumers will continue to avoid bad commercials, regardless of how long they are.

The article did raise the all-important question: How can we gauge the impact of branded entertainment when we can’t even measure the return on traditional advertising? Referring to DKNY’s latest branding efforts, vp of marketing Anjali Lewis said “return on investment in terms of how much clothing we sell is going to be hard to measure. It’s really going to be about how many people are talking about DKNY.”

DKNY recently launched “New York Stories” online and is about to add “Friday Night Fever” shorts to some feature-film DVDs. They will have on-screen credits for DKNY but, according to the Times, “settle into narratives that only emphasize clothing at the end. Even then it’s not apparent the clothes are from DKNY.”

With DKNY, the results are just embarrassing. You can’t graft a corporate tagline onto a vignette that has nothing to do with your brand and expect to bask in the glow of a well-told tale (or, in the case of DKNY, a tale that isn’t that well told). An advertiser’s only recourse is to take the truth about its brand and make that the star of its story. It’s tricky, but that’s why we are in this business.

There’s always an uneasy tension between art and commerce in advertising. The remarkable thing about so many of these spots is that they manage to feel so artless despite the fact that they mostly ignore the commerce side of the equation. Maybe they’re just incredibly subtle, but I doubt it. They seem more like an opportunity for a director to show off his skills than a real attempt at delivering a bigger brand story.

Let’s not devalue this potentially powerful format. We need to be asking ourselves, Is it right for the brand? And what part of a marketing problem can these short films potentially solve?