A Convenient Truth

NEW YORK The director: Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland fame. The scene: Handsome Dutch scientist, an engineer with an oil company, sits down for a drink with his rebellious teenage son. The son asks sarcastically, “Which part of the world are you drilling to pieces now?” The producer: Shell Film Productions.

Yes, that Shell. The group with oil, gas and petrochemical companies—and the group now producing and distributing Eureka, a nine-and-a-half-minute drama “based on true events.” It follows the struggles of a scientist trying his darndest to solve the problem of “undrillable” oil in Southeast Asia, and to deal with the pressures he faces from his family and the press. Playing in movie theaters and online, and distributed via inserts in publications like this month’s Wired magazine, it’s just one example of the latest wrinkle in branded entertainment: the documentary and pseudo-documentary film.

Six years after BMW Films brought brand-sponsored entertainment to the Web with high-octane stories built around cars (starring, helpfully, Clive Owen), online films have become the norm for marketers looking for added value. These days, however, fictional films are taking a backseat to those featuring true stories (or stories that approximate the truth). Advertisers as diverse as Ford, IBM, Home Depot, Hitachi, Shell Oil and Johnson & Johnson have in recent months all unveiled truth-based advertising films to sell their brands.

“More than ever, audiences are fragmented; we live a BlackBerry/DVR/TiVo lifestyle and with that you put the viewer in control,” Richard Toranzo, worldwide program manager, branded entertainment at IBM, says of the need to make consumers sit up and listen. He adds that corporate-inspired films are nothing new, pointing to IBM’s hiring of Charles and Ray Eames to make kiosk films for the 1964 World’s Fair.

To help brand the company as an innovation leader, Toranzo says, IBM, along with Ogilvy & Mather in New York, decided to create a documentary film series with five two- to seven-minute shorts featuring IBM employees to run online, and on TV and other media channels. Each clip focuses on how IBM technology serves clients, including the Real-Time Crime Center of the New York City Police Foundation and National Geographic’s genographic project. “We’ve done very well with the 30-second TV spot and we know what works for us,” says Toranzo. “Now we want to tell a longer story.”

When Johnson & Johnson unit Centocor deliberated marketing immune disorder drug Remicade, it decided to forgo traditional TV and print. Instead, it created a nearly hour-long film, Innerstate, focusing on the lives of three patients facing chronic inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. The film, promoted primarily through doctors’ offices, was made available online and in special in-theater screenings in 14 markets around the country. (These screenings include a Q&A session.)The drug and the company are never mentioned, so the film doesn’t get bogged down with belabored explanations of potential health risks that are required in such work by the FDA, enabling it to focus instead on the human drama.

“If a patient leaves the theater with a meaningful understanding of the benefits and risk, we’ve accomplished our goal,” says Michael Parks, executive producer of the film and director of public relations at Centocor.

Some agency creative directors, such as Ty Montague, CCO of JWT, New York, which created Ford’s online documentary series, “Bold Moves,” attributes the upswing of documentary-style advertising to both the popularity of reality TV and video-sharing sites on the Internet. “We are in the reality-everything phase of media,” he says. “For better or worse, everybody has a camera and everyone has a connection to the Internet, so life itself has become one giant documentary in a way.” “Bold Moves,” directed in part by Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost), chronicles a year in the life of Ford’s attempted corporate turnaround.

Consumers may want reality from their entertainment and advertising, but do they believe they’re actually getting it from a marketer-sponsored documentary—what some call glorified corporate videos? Amy Nicholson, former cd at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., and a director at Hungry Man, who made a documentary, Muskrat Lovely, about the annual Miss Outdoors contest in Golden Hill, Md., admits, “There is a fine line between a documentary and a corporate video. [But if done right], a good corporate video can be a documentary. … It can be a lovely way to project your brand.”

Jeff Feuerzeig (director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston), one of the filmmakers on the IBM project, says debating whether or not a corporate documentary can be fair and balanced is virtually a moot point, as any human-created content is going to have a fingerprint. “Look what Tom Wolfe and other writers did with new journalism,” he says. “It’s not all fair and balanced.”

Chris Valentino, the filmmaker who directed Innerstate, says he always looked at the Johnson & Johnson project as a documentary, not necessarily a vehicle for selling a pharmaceutical. In the film, the name of the drug is never mentioned, he says, and the patients were not paid for their participation. “It’s a documentary film that chronicles different people that live with a chronic illness, and recounts their struggles as they reach their goals to be healthy and happy,” he explains. “The key defining word for me was always that it was a story about hope.

“Everything from news programs to TV shows are an advertisement for something,” he continues. “At the core of it, you are always looking for truth. If you think about it, an Inconvenient Truth was an advertisement for the global warming environmental movement.”

Steve James (Hoop Dreams), director of the online film series “Team Tough” out of JWT, Detroit, which profiles 12 Ford truck owners over the course of a year, says that the storytelling and selling is all about balance. “The challenge was to show them using the trucks, putting the trucks to work in a serious way, and giving people a glimpse into the lives of these guys and what drives them,” says James. “I’m in the business of telling real-people stories.”

But James stresses that the films “aren’t pure documentaries,” given that they’re made to highlight the trucks. “I have to keep in mind that the truck is important,” he says. “But what brings the thing to life is the fact that these are real people, real histories. My job as a filmmaker coming to this project is always to push as much in this direction [as I can] while still understanding you can’t forget about the truck.”

Given these types of projects, client transparency—in general, full disclosure—is necessary in terms of credibility. “You shouldn’t make any attempt to hide that it is coming from a brand,” says JWT’s Montague. He adds that the docu’s subject matter needs to come from the core attributes of the product or company that is sponsoring it in order to feel as authentic as possible. He points to the 2001 Vans sneaker-funded Dogtown and Z-Boys, which is about the pioneering 1970s Zephyr skating team. “[Vans] wasn’t called out in any particular way because they are an authentic part of the skate culture,” Montague says. “So the product is treated in a really respectful way. These are basic things, but the more honest and the less corporate people are, the more the audience responds. … The less PR it seems, the more people engage.”

In the case of Ford’s “Bold Moves,” the film series has “worked pretty well on a couple of levels,” says Jim Kane, manager of marketing sales and services, Ford Lincoln Mercury. “It very clearly articulated the challenges that we faced and shed a light on strategies we were following to turn this big ship around. It focused on people. We took an approach that was unique for Ford and any company by trying to build a community. If you follow the documentary, we asked people to judge us by results. … You can see documentary evidence that our ship has turned, for instance, in third-party safety scores [Ford Edge scored a top safety pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]. We still have a tough row to hoe, but we’re making tremendous progress.”

Parks says that the Centocor film has helped start an important dialog among patients. And IBM’s Toranzo notes that the company has many global stories to mine and is committed to continue to bring the non-scripted films to consumers via additional delivery methods such as mobile devices and interactive TV.

“We are a huge research and development company and people don’t know these things about us,” says Toranzo. “We have great stories to tell.”