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In Online Video, Brands Get More than Ads for Their Money

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How much brand involvement is too much?

Premium video created for online viewing is often branded, meaning that a sponsor or brand was involved in its creation. Branding goes beyond sponsorship. A sponsored program has ads -- static or video -- placed around the content. Branded video, on the other hand, has products integrated into the content, and those brands may have steered the content’s direction.

Since I learned that fact years ago, I’ve been squeamish about it, as if brand messaging would sully the purity of online video. Why I cared about the ethics of online video more than the people actually creating online video is a mystery to me. No doubt every star on YouTube would love to get some brand deals going.

With online video series now edging into mainstream consciousness, I decided to survey the forms branding is taking. Is branding creating long commercials dressed as entertainment, or are marketers using a lighter touch?

Yahoo!’s excellent series Burning Love was created with brand participation. According to Anna Robertson, the head of Yahoo! Studios, marketing agency PHD bought the exclusive rights to the show’s second and third seasons for its clients, which include Tums Freshers and Breathe Right strips. Most of the time, the products were simply visible on a nightstand. In one episode, the series’ dim-witted Mark Orlando (played by Ken Marino) tried unsuccessfully to apply a Breathe Right strip before realizing he had to remove the backing. It was a revelation to me that, in the right hands, brand participation could enhance a series. The scene was funny, and brand involvement made the whole series possible.

Other Yahoo! programs with brand involvement include the fashion and beauty series The Thread, which has recommended Procter & Gamble products, and music series Ram Country, which has included Chrysler Ram trucks.

AOL is also leading the way in brand involvement, which can take a variety of forms. One of HuffPost Live’s founding sponsors, Verizon, wanted to get behind innovative technology content. AOL created a segment for Verizon called Tech Game Changers that runs a few times a week. The AOL series GMC Trade Secrets was created entirely to meet GMC’s marketing needs. AOL sat down with GMC and learned that it wanted to get in front of do-it-yourselfers. Every episode of the series includes a GMC truck but skips any commercial messaging for GMC.

“One size does not fit all for branded entertainment,” says Karen Cahn, general manager for AOL On Original Video. “Depending on the show and the brand, the executions look very, very different.”

While it seems easier to work brands into a nonfiction series, AOL is happy to involve them in scripted shows as well. When Allstate Insurance loved the series Little Women Big Cars and wanted to get involved, AOL added an insurance salesperson character for the second season. While that sounds a little much, Cahn says it was carefully done.

“When a brand comes to us, we always have that in the back of our minds to say ‘What does the brand want to do and is this going to effect the content in any way so that users will not watch it?’ If the answer is yes then we go back to the drawing board and come to a place where the brand integration is organic and additive,” Cahn says.

In the end, I have to conclude that branded online videos don’t chafe at me like I thought they would. For the moment, brand involvement is light, and it feels more honest than product placement in broadcast TV or movies. If it ever gets to the point that brand messaging is turning series into commercials, I don’t think I’ll need to protest. Instead, I think notoriously fickle online video viewers will click away in droves.

This article appears in the August/September 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "In Online Video, Brands Get More than Ads for Their Money."

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