The age of compelling content

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

Branded content – or branded entertainment, if you prefer – is in vogue right now. It wins big at festivals. New agencies are being set up devoted to it. People keep asking me to write articles about it. But the big question is – what the hell is it?

One of the agencies I asked, Kameleon in London, described it as “content that consumers want to spend time with”.  Kameleon specializes in making short films and “webisodes” (it made some great mini documentaries about the mothers of Olympic athletes for P&G). And while branded content is usually short form, it tends to mimic bigger entertainment – it considers traditional movies and TV its closest relatives, rather than the humble 30 second spot.

And here we get to my point: I believe branded entertainment has been with us for decades. I can clearly remember standing in a pub when I was 18 years old, enthusing about an ad for Levi’s 501s I’d seen before leaving the house. It featured a young man shrinking his new jeans to fit by wearing them in the bath. (‘Bath’ was made by BBH in 1986 and featured Sam Cooke singing ‘Wonderful World’.) A simple idea, but shot with such atmosphere and style that I wanted to be that guy, in that scene. I still wear 501s to this day. In fact I’m wearing some as I write, but not in the bath.

Levi's 501 "Bath" (1986)

A few years earlier, I’d sit up straight every time an ad called ‘1984’, advertising the Apple Macintosh and directed by Ridley Scott, blasted onto the TV screen. Earlier still – and now we’re back in the 70s – I enjoyed the adventures of the Milk Tray man, a mysterious Bond-like figure who risked life and limb to deliver chocolates to his lady. (He still looks pretty suave, actually.) As far as I’m concerned, all this was branded entertainment.

Milk Tray spot (1970s)

Milk Tray ad 2 (70s)

The big change, of course, is that back then I had to wait around to consume the ads I loved. Now, if I see an ad that inspires me, I can get my fix whenever I want. Ten, twenty times I day if I wish.

A few years ago, people were asking me to write articles about the death of the 30 second spot. But it just didn’t happen. For one thing TV is stronger than ever – the average HBO series is way more sophisticated than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. And so the 30 second spot keeps trundling along, with an extended life on YouTube. The problem for agencies, of course, is that while it’s easier to see ads these days, it’s also far easier to avoid them. Which is a good thing for consumers, as agencies are now more or less obliged to make entertaining spots.

So what is branded content, exactly? It’s not only "content consumers want to spend time with". It’s content consumers want to seek out. And if you’re lucky, watch over and over again.