Why WSJ’s Sponsored Content Features the Economics of Sex and Drugs

Gives Starz, Netflix viewers background on their favorite shows

Want to know the cost of a royal wedding feast in 15th century Italy or a sex slave in ancient Rome? To promote The Girlfriend Experience, a new Starz show about the world of high-end escorts, WSJ Custom Studios, the Wall Street Journal's in-house content marketing agency, created a content piece exploring the economics of prostitution, dating and marriage throughout history.

The piece, Business of the Heart, is an in-depth feature story with video clips of the show throughout and an interactive timeline on the historical price of love and lust, including the costs of: a bridal gift in Mesopotamia in 200 BC versus a sex slave in Rome in 27 BC, a marriage license versus a prostitute in 1800s England, and a date versus a subscription to porn in New York in 2015. The piece launched on the Wall Street Journal's website on Monday and will run in print on Friday alongside an ad for the show, which premieres on Sunday and is based on the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name.

"We wanted to create a unique campaign for The Girlfriend Experience that not only sold the show in a traditional way, but also sparked conversation—perhaps even debate—about the world depicted in the series," said Alison Hoffman, evp of marketing for Starz. "Our goal is to generate conversation around a topic most people will consider underground, or even taboo. It's a way to spark interest and conversation around the themes of the series and ultimately to get people buzzing about the show itself."

WSJ Custom Studios linked the premise of The Girlfriend Experience to economics to appeal to the newspaper's business-focused audience, said Fara Warner, global director of WSJ Custom Studios. "Starz came to us to open up the show to an audience that otherwise wouldn't pay attention to it. Most relationships are based on an economic contract, and the timeline shows that we've been engaged in the economics of relationships going back to the days of geishas, or dowries. The hope is that our audience says, 'Wow, I didn't think about that' and now they're going to watch the show."

WSJ Custom Studios' other entertainment-focused sponsored content projects include Cocainenomics, a deep dive into the history of cocaine trafficking and the Medellin Cartel for Netflix's drug drama Narcos, and Gaming the American Dream, an explainer on hedge funds for Showtime's hedge fund drama Billions. All three pieces include interactive graphics alongside clips from the shows. The brands that WSJ Custom Studios partners with typically measure the success of these campaigns by the amount of time readers spend on the pages, hence the need for interactive elements like the timeline for The Girlfriend Experience and an interactive quiz in the Cocainenomics piece, along with heavily-researched long form articles.

"We believe an audience is much more likely to be engaged in a show if they understand the background behind it. People who enjoy medical dramas want to know what really happens when someone gets rushed to the ER," said Trevor Fellows, global head of advertising at the Wall Street Journal. "For Billions, for instance, we thought if people understood what a hedge fund really did, that the show would be that much more alive and compelling."

The Wall Street Journal's increased editorial entertainment content—like its weekly Arena section, which includes TV and film reviews—has helped WSJ Custom Studios land more content partnerships with entertainment properties, according to Fellows.

The native ad landscape, and what resonates with audiences, has changed since WSJ Custom Studios launched in 2014, he added. "A few years ago, we were in the Wild West age of native advertising, where one of the chief criteria of success was making it look as much like surrounding editorial as it possibly could. Thank goodness the world has moved on. Brands now know that they need to be proud that this is their content, and it needs to be differentiated from surrounding content, but needs to be of similar quality so the audience wants to engage with it. We've done a lot more work with videography, and spent more time on graphics. We've upped the social aspect of the content we've built. Our storytelling keeps getting better, too."

Over the last year, WSJ Custom Studios has focused more on quality over quantity, Warner said. "We're moving away from many pieces of content run out over a series of weeks or months and instead having an experience that takes longer to explore."