By Tom Cushing
Blurred Lines, the commercialUploaded: Jan 27, 2014
This is not a column about co-opting last year's song of the summer/pop earworm to promote a product (although I think Red Vines is missing a golden opportunity -- "you know you want 'em …"). Everyone from Led Zeppelin to Tiny Tim has done that.
Instead, let's talk about exploding cows. They, along with genetically modified chickens with eight delicious wings, figure prominently in a new comedy series called "Farmed and Dangerous" that will debut in February. What's interesting here (as if the cows were not enough) is that the series is produced by the Chipotle restaurant chain, and streamed to your TV by hulu.com. As such, it represents the next confluence of entertainment with corporate sponsorship.
Now, the involvement of advertisers in TV programming is part-and-parcel of American television, dating from GE Theater and Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s. And who could forget which insurance company brought you their Wild Kingdom? In those cases, commercials from the company were interspersed with the content of the show. Indeed, any time a commercial airs on the networks, it is tacitly understood that the advertiser is underwriting the costs of bringing you the program, in return for the exposure it provides.
Commercial sponsorship is very big business, commanding as much as $4 million for a 30-second blurb on this week's Super Bowl. Still, the emergence of the DVR compromises its value by allowing the viewer to Fast-Forward through the commercial breaks. In fact, I have a friend who plans to tune-in to The Game an hour late this Sunday, just so he can enjoy it uninterrupted. He can catch the good commercials later, in the best-of compilations that are certain to air on Monday.
So, if you're an advertiser, how can you ensure that your message gets through? Product placement is one way that's been around for a long time. By making sure the hero smokes/drinks/drives/wears/shoots your brand, you create a positive association. If the product can be worked-into the script (like the famous crème sandwich discussion on ABC Family's Seventh Heaven), so much the better. There are agencies that negotiate those deals as their primary business, and product placement is effective enough that FTC once looked-into requiring that a disclosure statement accompany each broadcast.
Chipotle has taken it a big step further, if subtler. Part of their ongoing promotion relates to a commitment to serve food that has been "responsibly raised" meaning no performance-enhancing drugs, as well as humane production processes. "Farmed and Dangerous" (hilarious trailer for the series here: weblink. No animals were harmed, etc.) is a satire on factory farming, designed to inform through its entertainment value (harking back once again to the superiority of story-telling over statistical advocacy). The restaurant does not figure in the plotlines, albeit the hero's name is Chip. To the extent that the audience internalizes the message of the show, Chipotle hopes that it will incline consumers to prefer its brand of Mexican food.
That's called "values marketing," which is used by other companies, as well. There are so-called socially responsible mutual funds for example, and most consumers can identify which car brand aligns itself with passenger safety. At minimum, this is savvy market segmentation, since values tend to remain pretty consistent over time. It also raises the real possibility of doing well by doing good. If Chipotle succeeds, more farmers will employ humane husbandry practices in order to supply its ingredients.
Furthermore, thanks to the magic of Internet streaming that expands choices and by-passes middle-folk, the message may be broadly disseminated for a relatively inexpensive price. Chipotle, which had earlier produced brief, more pointed cartoon videos that went viral, made these four episodes for a mere million bucks. That's equivalent to about seven seconds in Super Bowl standard time.
The newness of this phenomenon, though, gives it a slightly creepy feel. Is there danger lurking among the incendiary livestock? It seems to me that the FTC was on the right track -- disclosure is crucial. I am happy for someone to try to manipulate me, as long as I understand that's the game. That is, after all, what every commercial is about and both they and I know it. I would also like to know who's behind this kind of content.
Chipotle's is a pretty benign message, at least to those of us who don't profit from industrial ag. But what if the program hails from Koch Brothers Central, or to be fair and balanced, the George Soros Network? Would you want to know those origins?
Once again, transparency is the key. Inevitably, we're going to get more entries like this new series admitted to the free marketplace of ideas that's a wonderful thing, as long as we're also free to know from whence they came.
(My own disclosure: this column draws a lot of content from a NYT article, here.)