Call it branded content with a small "b." The True Agency has created a 30-minute original program for luxury carmaker Infiniti that features five black artists talking about design without once mentioning the brand.
Nor are there any commercial breaks. Instead, the conversation ends after 25 minutes and segues into images of Infiniti's various models. Each artist, including oil painter Kehinde Wiley, dancer Diedre Dawkins and music producer-DJ Paul Miller, was chosen to represent a key attribute of a particular model. For example, industrial designer Stephen Burks suggests the spaciousness of Infiniti's QX56, while Dawkins personifies the performance of the G35 sedan and movie director Euzhan Palcy, the "vision" of Infiniti M—all by discussing their craft in general, but not the models themselves.
The program, moderated by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, will premiere Feb. 9 in prime time on BET and run again a week later.
The show marks the next phase of True's year-old "Infiniti in Black" campaign and will be backed by teaser ads, events and public-relations initiatives that begin next week and run through March, said Garlanda Freeze, management supervisor at True in Playa del Rey, Calif. The cost of those efforts and the time on BET amounts to an estimated $7 million to $10 million.
The approach differs from those of General Motors and Ford, which have placed brands in TV shows such as The Apprentice and 24, respectively, as well as in music videos and films.
Original programming is a first for Infiniti, a unit of Nissan that hired True in late 2003 as its first agency dedicated to reaching the black market. The show also breaks new ground for BET, which previously scheduled paid programming only on weekends in the early morning. "If it were a hard sell and something that was clearly commercial … then it would have gotten different placement and different treatment," said Michael Lewellen, svp of corporate communications at BET in Washington, D.C. "At the end of the day, we felt this is something that our viewers will enjoy seeing."
Indeed, while Infiniti's sponsorship will be made clear by the opening credits and a closing sequence, "In Black" will not otherwise be labeled "paid programming," since it's not a hard sell, Lewellen said. The toned-down commercialism also was key to attracting the artists, men and women mostly in their late 20s and 30s who reflect the target audience: affluent blacks with a slight male skew, said Monica Smith, manager of marketing communications for Infiniti in Los Angeles. "We didn't want it to be overtly commercial in the same way the whole campaign hasn't been," Smith said. The artists previously have appeared in print ads and a series of short Web films.
True, a three-and-a-half-year-old agency, also didn't want the program to look like a typical talk show and hence picked a director (Otis Sallid) with a diverse background in commercials, TV, film and theater, said executive producer Daryll Merchant. "We're trying to merge media with advertising," said True chairman Claude Grunitzky. "Advertising as close to regular programming as possible."