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eGuider Exclusive — February 20th, 2009

Meet the Monetizers

The Year of the Branded Web Series

by Melissa Roth

In the pilot of Illeana Douglas's web series, Easy to Assemble, a Burbank Ikea employee offers orientation pointers for her famous new co-worker. "It's dark half the year in Sweden, and it's very depressing," she says through a Swedish accent, locating the store's headquarters on a map. "You are now part of our family. We are all dark together."

It's probably not the pitch Ikea's ad agency was selling, but Easy to Assemble may be the most effective lure for a furnishing store ever created. You might even be tempted to move in to one of their bedroom sets, especially if you like celebrities, like Craig Bierko, who's been secretly living in a "Hemnes" room. Or maybe it's a "Malm." (No fees were taken from Ikea for this article, so fact-checking is a luxury we can't afford.)

Despite all the bright yellow uniforms and Colorform-fun store sets, Easy to Assemble wrings its humor out of a cast that is dark together. "I decided not to do the bad TV movie and live my life as a bad TV movie instead," Douglas tells her Actors Anonymous group, which meets in one of the store's living room displays.

With all the rampant logos and Vanna White-worthy merchandise displays, Easy to Assemble might seem like a big sell-out. But that's kind of the point. "…the commercialism is not only part of the joke, it's a nod to some deeper meta-stuff," says Maria Russo of the Los Angeles Times. In an episode called "Art is where you make it," Ed Begley Jr. tries to convince Douglas to turn down a reality TV offer (riding Tom Arnold on "Celebrity Bull Riding") and instead find her artist within, which he then demonstrates by concocting a sculpture out of a random assortment of furniture.

We all work for a sponsor, in other words, so at least do it on your own terms.

Ready for their Close-Up

Douglas is one of a handful of Hollywood actors and writers who are working for sponsors on their own terms. Lisa Kudrow, Ashton Kutchner, Rosario Dawson and a host of Comedy Central comedians have also launched mini serials into the ether, bypassing the networks and getting their paychecks straight from the advertisers.

Of course, branded entertainment is nothing new. Films and TV shows are increasingly weaving products into scripts, and not for nothing. "It's the big sector of 2009," says Frank Zazza, CEO of iTVX, a company that measures product placement in both TV and web content. "The agencies are all hustling to get their brands written into shows."

With the surging popularity of DVRs and online TV viewing, advertisers are no longer getting the same bang for the 30-second buck. And with budgets increasingly shifting to the digital world, in hot pursuit of the eyeballs, video creators and distributors are determined to monetize their goods.

Most advertisers have stuck to overlay ads, mini spots that run before or during each video, or graphical ads framing the video player. But more and more the big brands want in on the action – and a part in the script, if not the whole premise of it.

The benefits to marketers are many: they not only get to "own" the content, they can take their product straight to their (often moving) targets in a format where they're more engaged. They don't have to compete with the clutter of other advertisers during all the simultaneous network-launched fare. And the tracking of views and audience response also happens immediately, which allows content and distribution to be fine-tuned mid-series.

But the biggest bonus for advertisers is that branded video allows them to be "in on" the entertainment value of a show, no longer relegated to the sidelines. "[It's] a way for marketers to take the high road, to rise above the rabble of commercials and appear to be patrons of the arts," Justin Cone, editor of, told Adobe Magazine.

There are benefits for viewers as well, advocates of branded content point out. Sponsors ultimately help democratize web content by allowing creators to bypass what's quickly becoming a "studio system" of mass-market-friendly network and portal-driven video, and instead create their own niche with their own funding and distribution.

The fear, of course, is that we will soon be living in a giant commercial bubble, a Truman Show universe where no one can be trusted to simply entertain, and we begin to suspect that everyone – and every joke - is secretly trying to sell us something.

This can be a particular concern in the digital realm. "People on the web or You Tube are so sensitive, the minute they think a big corporation is trying to shill to them, they get really angry," says Tom Bannister, head of SXM, the production company behind Easy to Assemble. "That is an issue; brands are everywhere, and do you really want to see them in your entertainment?"

Back Where We Started

To varying degrees, brands have always been a part of our entertainment. TV was launched by ad-driven content, from Texaco's Star Theater to The Buick Berle Show, for which Uncle Miltie himself was re-branded as he sprinkled Buick references into his shtick.

In the early days of TV, there was no question who controlled the content -- advertisers greenlit shows and sat in the control booth. The networks were just the messenger.

Web shows could very well follow the same arc as TV. As demand for television programming increased and content became longer, production budgets spiked – requiring more than one sponsor to defray the costs. The "magazine" format was born, with breaks for commercials, which were divvied up between brands. With more diversified funding, the networks were able to wrest control of the content away from advertisers.

Of course, commercial breaks didn't stop brands from becoming part of the dialogue – or even the driving force behind a story. Seinfeld was notorious for storylines that revolved around products, from the Sponge to Junior Mints to the infamous knife-and-fork-required Snickers bar. That was only a decade ago, and not a dime was paid by the brands made legendary by the show. "Writers would say 'we need a candy for this particular episode and we need clearance,' and they'd come to us," says Zazza, who's spent 30 years in the product placement business. "We'd clear it for them, but there was no money exchanged back then."

Today, it would cost millions to get George Costanza to go apeshit over your candy bar. After all, who's going to fast-forward their DVR or media player through the plot?

The Modern Soap Opera

For much, much less than it costs to get a TV star to utter a brand name in a show, consumer product companies are discovering they can get their message across in an entire series - or even an entire broadband portal. Leading the pack is Unilever, the company behind Suave, Axe and Dove, which was once known as Lever Brothers – the company that gave us daytime dramas, putting the "soap" before the "opera."

In the world of web series, content control is more of a free-for-all. Ideas for series have originated with actors, writers, ad agencies, media-buying shops, "branded entertainment" companies, management firms – or directly from the brands themselves.

The role of the product or brand in a story – how "integral" it is to the plot, how often it's mentioned or used – is often the end result of a gingerly negotiated script that goes back and forth between brand reps and producers, sometimes with agents and managers working as the middlemen. The challenge for everyone involved is to create something inherently entertaining that doesn't feel like an ad – while still carrying enough of a product message to make it worth it for the sponsor to pick up the tab.

"As content creators, it's our job to create projects that are compelling, pull viewers in and get people talking -- not necessarily to push the brand message at the viewer," says Ron Eigen, co-founder of Diligent, a company that's created web serials for networks (Comedy Central and MTV) and brands (Sprint and Sierra Mist). "This sometimes goes against the marketers' habits born from the commercial world."

Easy to Assemble was relatively easy to produce; creator and star Illeana Douglas was given free reign from her sponsor once they approved the concept. "Ikea didn't give any notes on the script," says Bannister, the series producer. "They read it and were happy with it. They felt that IIeana's offbeat humor was a good fit for them, and they let us make jokes and be slightly irreverent."

Marketing execs are equally leery of over-selling, aware that it can ultimately backfire by creating "cognitive rejection" -- turning people off. But not all brands are as laissez-faire as the Swedish-based Ikea. Often branded web series are created by a brand's ad agency, as was the case with Alka-Seltzer's "Great American Road Trip," which was produced by Proximity Canada, a division of ad giant BBDO.

Video produced by marketing firms has been known to backfire, however. In 2006, when Sony hired an outside agency to create an "underground" viral video to promote its PSP, viewers sniffed out its source and linked it to the consumer electronics behemoth, and Sony ended up issuing an apology.

"Online viewers, who are typically more savvy and have more information at their fingertips, are generally more sensitive to being played," says Diligent's Eigen. "With these viewers it is even more important to get it right in creating good content that doesn't come off as a commercial." Opinions spread quickly on the web, Eigen points out, which can work for and against a sponsor. "If it's done right, the content can prove invaluable for a brand or agency looking to engage their audience in a meaningful way."

The keys to success behind most online content are transparency and humor – even if the humor borders on self-mockery. "There's no better way to say 'you're it' than to have people parody you," Boost Mobile's Tricia Bouzigard told AdWeek. Boost executives eventually came around to endorsing a scene in the Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force in which their phone is set ablaze. NASCAR executives were behind the Will Ferrell parody of the sport in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, and Toyota paid MadTV for a sketch that described its Yaris as the car for non-conforming underachievers.

"Comedy may be risky, but stepping out of the box and away from the safety zone can pay dividends in expanding the brand's core fan/consumer base," explains Sarah Nettinga, NASCAR's director of entertainment.

Ready for Primetime – and a PEOPLE Cover?

Both advertisers and content creators are looking to 2009 as the year that will put branded series on the map – or at least on a major magazine cover. All eyes are on "In the Motherhood," the web series that racked up 30 million online views before getting picked up by ABC, which will re-launch the show on their primetime schedule March 26th. The TV version will borrow the interactive dimension from the web series, which wove viewer-submitted stories into the scripts.

Originating on Suave's website, "In the Motherhood" got picked up by MSN, landed its stars on Oprah and Ellen, and took off, causing "brand envy" among its peers. Advertisers from Dove to Sprint to Lexus and Holiday Inn have since jumped into the game.

"Branded content is going to be the major force in delivery of message," adds Zazza. "It's going to become more sophisticated and seamless, with no repercussions for cognitive rejection."

As for whether a branded web series could earn a spot on a PEOPLE cover, stay tuned, as they say in TV.

VIDEO PICKS: The Evolution of Branded Entertainment

That's why they call them "soaps."
The very first product placement likely occurred in this 1880s Lumiere film. An entire parade of sweaty, marching Frenchmen - can you think of a better place to sell soap? The question is, why isn't anyone stopping to buy it…

It's a Wonderful Life
…if you subscribe to National Geographic. This clip kind of makes you wonder, were Mormon fundamentalists also putting up money for Capra's classic?

The Birth of TV: Texaco Star Theater
The boob tube was launched by advertisers, who made sure there brands were part of the script. Whatever it took. Danny Thomas wasn't just working for Texaco – in this clip he gives himself a bird bath with PetMilk, his sponsor. Surely it worked on all those kittens watching at home.

The Real Reason the Flinstones Became Extinct
We coulda guessed Wilma was a shill for Big Tobacco (that strumpet), but how did Betty's agent get her to do this?

George Costanza Seeks Revenge for Stolen Twix Bar
An entire Super Bowl worth of candy bar plugs flies in this episode of Seinfeld, and George doesn't just stop at dropping names – he insists Twix is "the only candy with the cookie crunch." Hard to believe they didn't collect for it back then…Jason Alexander might want to go back and demand some residuals.

A Road Trip to Plug Indigestion?
Nothing will make you crave plop-plop-fizz-fizz more than a cross-country tour of street vendor food, buffets, BBQs and chicken-and-waffle houses. But it helps to start out with the boys from…Entourage? Or at least the Vince & Drama of the internet. Alka Seltzer's "Great American Road Trip" percolated beyond the webosphere, earning AdWeek's "best branded web series of '08" title.

30 Rock Spoofs Branded Entertainment
…but surely collects in the process. If transparency and humor are the secrets to pulling off brand plugs, Tina Fey pulls it off. She hits it straight on while shilling for a certain cell phone provider, and talks to the elephant in the room.

Full Circle - The Great Soap Hope
130 years after the first product placement, soap may just launch the web's first cross-over hit. ABC has taken over the hit web series "In the Motherhood," and driving sponsor Suave has stayed along for the ride. But you'll be hard-pressed to find the original web series on the eve of its network re-launch – only an endless array of dedicated blogs, part of the secret to its success.

Melissa Roth

eGuider: Melissa Roth
Journalist, Author, Web Producer

Melissa Roth has written story extensions and webisodes for HBO shows including Entourage, Big Love, Sex & the City and John from Cincinnati. The author of two books (On the Loose and The Left Stuff), has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and Self magazine. She is currently producing two web series, Miss Beasley's Pick-Up School for Girls and Byron's Barcalounger.

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