Brain Chatter: The Real Cost of Advertisers Buying TV Storylines

January 25, 2018 Shane Schick

We’re way behind on watching all the episodes we’ve PVR’d, but there was a moment when my wife and I were watching the TV sitcom Blackish recently that really hit home.

“We’re out of cookies? Now I’m going to have to eat an entire bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips!” the show’s Dad says at one point.

My wife and I looked at each other. OMG, I thought, that guy is so me.

There was no mention of a specific brand of semi-sweet chocolate chips, mind you, and if there had been, I think the effect might would’ve been the same. If I had known a brand had paid to have that line written, though . . . I might have felt like I was being sold, somehow.

This possibility became a bigger issue recently when the ad industry’s favourite customer, P&G, went ahead and invested in an entire storyline on Blackish. The Guardian had the details:

In the episode, broadcast on ABC, characters discussed P&G’s award-winning ad campaign, “The Talk”, which features African American parents talking about racism to their children. The show’s storyline involved character Dre Johnson – the father of the family, who is himself black and an ad executive – developing an advertising campaign that focuses on P&G’s film.

How meta, you might say, but there are bigger questions here. Does the sponsorship turn that episode of Blackish into branded content, or simply content that has been (very subtly) branded?

This is not the first time we’ve seen such things, of course. In 2015 Apple scored a similar “win” (if you can call it that) when an entire episode of Modern Family was told primarily through the screens of its iPads and iPhones.

The Guardian article suggested that advertisers are reacting to the constraints of streaming services like Netflix, where a big part of the value is not having to watch ads. For the TV studios and networks, it seems to be an attempt to treat the creative elements of their core products as just more inventory to be sold. You can’t run ads on Netflix and Hulu? Well, we’ll give you even more opportunities to get your message out on our platform!

I’m not necessarily against brands financing great content -- even content that gently builds awareness for what they do -- if it’s above-board and packaged the right away. Plus, the conversation in the show is a completely valid one to have, especially given the current actions surrounding that topic.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, for instance, has included several instances of host Jerry Seinfeld making joking references to the show’s sponsor, Acura, and its vehicles which suddenly appear in certain episodes.

Then there are the shows where the content simply aligns with the brand’s audience interests, like Man Enough, the online series about modern masculinity, which features a clear logo for its sponsor, the shaving company Harry’s, in the corner of the screen. 

None of those examples are much different than the “sponsored content” you see in newspapers and magazines all the time. I can tell you from experience that what advertisers really want, however, is for their creative involvement to seem organic (read: invisible).

The problem, of course, is that audiences deserve to know. Although P&G issued a press release (and there might have been a mention in the credits of the episode, but who watches those?) most viewers of Blackish have come to expect a show where the stories are specifically designed to entertain them, not persuade them.

There’s a brand promise behind all such creative work. You need to be as transparent as possible when you begin telling stories with an entirely different purpose in mind. If you don’t, you won’t necessarily be breaking any laws. You might even sell some more laundry detergent, at least for a while.

In the long term, however, you risk getting in front of audiences that don’t want to see you, and those producing the work may lose much of that audience.

Plus, as marketing tactics go, it’s lame. Or at least, lame-ish. 


Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more at ShaneSchick.com


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