Why More Brands Risk Mockery To Boost Image

The glove compartment in the latest Dodge Caliber is no longer designed to hold maps and gasoline receipts. Instead, engineers at the Chrysler auto division have transformed it into a cooler for drinks and snacks—and severed body parts? A recent branded-entertainment segment on Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Nation showed the cooler being used to stow dismembered hands from a mill accident. “The chill zone holds up to four hands!” show host Greg Giraldo enthusiastically told the audience.

The bit is just one example of how a select but growing group of marketers is using self-deprecating humor in branded entertainment to appeal to their target consumers—often skewing young and male. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, industry insiders say more marketers are using various forms of parody, specifically in regard to their products, to demonstrate to consumers that they don’t take themselves too seriously.

“What I’m finding is that brand marketers are keeping an open mind to these opportunities,” said George Leon, evp, worldwide consumer marketing at Columbia TriStar Consumer Marketing Group. Nascar, which has surged in popularity nationwide over the last decade, is certainly game. The race-car organization collaborated with the Sony-owned studio for the upcoming summer racing circuit send-up Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, starring Will Ferrell.

But taking the comedic approach in branded entertainment can be risky, marketing executives say. “There is a lot of angst going into humor because marketers feel that someone’s going to be offended by it, and they don’t know what will happen to their product,” said Rob Donnell, president of branded entertainment company Brand Arc.

For Nascar, risk is integral to the sport and its marketing plan, said Sarah Nettinga, the organization’s director of film, television and music entertainment. “Comedy may be risky, but stepping out of the box and away from the safety zone can pay dividends in expanding the brand’s core fan/consumer base,” Nettinga said.

For those willing to embrace irreverent humor, the payoff is a less-cluttered field. “There’s not a lot of clutter [because] a lot of people won’t even look at that space,” Donnell said.

And clutter-free branding opportunities are increasingly scarce. Leo Kivijarv, vp and research director at PQ Media, estimates, “From the moment you brush your teeth and open your refrigerator to the moment you go to bed, you encounter over 3 million brand messages.”

MADtv, Fox’s late-night sketch comedy show, had three paid integrations this spring, including one for Toyota’s low-end Yaris, which was parodied as the ride of non-conforming underachievers, “not the likes of Donald Trump,” as the segment claimed.

“A few years ago, had you asked me if we would be doing branded entertainment in irreverent comedy programming, I would say I would have my doubts,” said David Salzman, creator, executive producer and writer at MADtv.

The MADtv segment helped build awareness for the model in the U.S., where it was recently introduced, said Mark Simmons, national manager of advertising strategy and media at Toyota. “It turned up in various chat rooms and blogs,” he said. “Going into a space like that is edgier … but for the audience we’re trying to reach, it was the right opportunity.”

Content that pokes fun at a brand may seep into viewers’ memories better than straight-laced offerings, said Barbara Zack, managing director and chief strategic officer at IAG Research. “If being remembered is good enough, and if recall is what the brand hopes to achieve, then it would be a success,” she said.

“The culture on Madison Avenue has changed,” said Robert Riesenberg, president and CEO of Omnicom branded content shop Full Circle Entertainment. “Previously, individuals who would be ultra-conservative realized they have to be bold. But at the end of the day, they need to protect the brand.”

For most marketers, protecting the brand means steering clear of self-skewering material. Joey Viselli, director of marketing services at Goodyear North America, estimates 80 percent of brands would “frown on parody,” including Goodyear. With a wink to the real-life brand, “Lightyear” tires made an appearance in the Disney/Pixar animation Cars, where the brand “took something serious and [had] fun with it”—but not with the actual brand, Viselli noted.

At Boost Mobile, senior executives had to be persuaded that a parody approach—setting a Boost phone ablaze during an episode in Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force—would resonate with its youthful target audience, said Tricia Bouzigard, the cell phone company’s senior manager, entertainment marketing. Among the concerns: “What if it backfires and comes across as a blatant corporate promotion?” Ultimately, the script itself won over the company’s higher-ups. “They laughed hysterically,” she said. “There’s no better way to say ‘you’re it’ than to have people parody you.”

Gary Faber, head of marketing at The Weinstein Co., says that the initial concern of the Boost executives is valid. “You need to be authentic with this demographic,” Faber said. “They have a savvy that wasn’t there before, and they know when they’re being sold to.”

But, when placements are dead-on, integral to the story and brand-kosher, they can yield handsome returns. Director Kevin Smith and The Weinstein Co. are taking a reverse approach to branded entertainment. Instead of integrating an existing restaurant into Smith’s upcoming film Clerks II, they conjured up the faux restaurant Mooby’s with a plan to license that franchise in the real world.

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