As The World Turns

“(Women in the 1930’s) wanted to be entertained, they were busy, they were working around the house and when they had an opportunity to sit down they wanted to be entertained. (Procter and Gamble) began to realize (it was important) to provide them storylines, to provide them entertainment…deep characters, rich characters, storylines that actually had meaning that women can relate to. And this is how we got into soap operas…You can try to sell your story or you can try tell your story and that’s what we were doing.” Greg McCoy – Senior Archivist – Procter & Gamble. Content Marketing Institute: The Story of Content Documentary

Three weeks ago, I used this quote as the opening paragraph for a blog post about Procter and Gamble’s content marketing strategy.  As noted, part of P & G’s strategy is branded content.

Brian Clark, Copyblogger CEO, said “Proctor & Gamble invented the soap opera in the 1930s with radio because they couldn’t figure out a way to reach housewives,” Clark explains. “Radio was new, and they created stories to appeal to that demographic. And then television showed up and they transferred it to television, and by the 1970s, soap operas are the most profitable form of television.”

In that way, P&G was adapting its content to new platforms, much like brands do today. Except back then, brands only had to adapt to new platforms every 10 years, while now, they have to adapt every 10 months. Grauerm Yael. Exploring Seinfeld, Buzzfeed, and the History of Branded Content With Brian Clark. Contently. March 12th, 2014

So what exactly is branded content?

Ulrike Gretze defines branded content as, “Paid content that is created and delivered outside of traditional advertising means, using formats familiar to consumers, with the intent of promoting a brand — either implicitly or explicitly — through the means of controlled storytelling.”

Branded Content is still highly effective. Here’s why: When a consumer watches branded content, their brand recall is up to 59% higher than it is with display ads. Viewers are also 14% more likely to seek out extra content from the same brand. As far as ROI goes, these are strong numbers. Consumers like branded content because they believe the content is more consumer-focused. Since the message isn’t a sales pitch, it creates trust between the brand and the consumer. Traditional advertising does not have the same outcome. ONESpot. How Effective Is Branded Content? Key ROI Insights for Content Leaders. ONESpot. December 6, 2016.

Yet, branded content is a slippery slope, even for “trusted brands.” 

The USC Center for PR’s 2018 Global Communications Report indicated that “42% of PR professionals were concerned about the increasing prevalence of branded content. Nearly half the respondents thought it was somewhat or very difficult for consumers to distinguish branded content from editorial forms of content. Yet only 15% thought using branded content was somewhat or very unethical.”

“Fewer than half (47%) of PR professionals indicated that certain organizations or industries should not be allowed to use branded content strategies. The top five listed by the respondents were tobacco, hate groups, political organizations, alcohol and firearms.”

The history of advertising and tobacco is well documented. The CDC writes, “Scientific evidence shows that tobacco company advertising and promotion influences young people to start using tobacco. Adolescents who are exposed to cigarette advertising often find the ads appealing. Tobacco ads make smoking appear to be appealing, which can increase adolescents’ desire to smoke.” A ban on cigarette advertisements on TV and radio went into effect in 1971. 

As the World Turns … Fast forward 40 years.

As old rules no longer applied, Big Tobacco began using internet platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, to bypass advertising bans. They began paying social media influencers to promote traditional tobacco products as well as e-cigarettes online. And they were very successful at it. Those who track the industry’s activities online say it is notoriously difficult to tell what Facebook calls “branded content”. Rowell, Andrew. Big Tobacco wants social media influencers to promote its products – can the platforms stop it? The Conversation. January 23. 2020

After pressure on the industry to act,  in 2019 Facebook and Instagram announced what many saw as a long-overdue update to their policy on tobacco. 

Is this branded content ethical?

Immanuel Kant boiled the ethical value of actions to a two-question framework.

Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act?

Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, the action is unethical.

Using that framework, branded content by tobacco products (and others) is unethical. 

Rowell explains that in the first paragraph. “Its fundamental problem is that one in two of its long-term users die from tobacco-related diseases. And it (tobacco companies) have to be innovative. As one ex-marketing consultant remarked: “The problem is how do you sell death?”

CNN also answers the question of ethics and branded content with Juul (e-cigarettes and vaping). The investigation looked at Juul’s social media practices and branded content and how it targeted teens.. The report says, “Teens are not aware that e-cigs contain high levels of nicotine particularly on a developing brain and more likely to lead to traditional cigarette use.”

Time magazine also looks at Juul’s content marketing strategy and branded content starting at 2:26 on the video.

It is acceptable on ethical grounds to prevent tobacco, hate groups, political organizations, alcohol, and firearms industries from using branded content strategies. But what about everything else? We as an industry need to create a framework of transparency and common code of ethics.

As Hany Farid write, “If fake news is the virus and social media is the host, then advertisers are the vaccine. Social media platforms survive because of advertising dollars. The corporate titans of the world have tremendous power to effect change by withholding advertising dollars until these platforms operate in a more socially responsible way. If they want to partake in the solution, then they should wield this power. But it’s not all on the companies: We as consumers have to get smarter and more critical of what we read and see. We need to get out of our echo chambers and engage with facts and reality in a less partisan and myopic way. We have to demand that social media platforms and advertisers act more responsibly. Farid, Hany. The dystopian digital future of fake media Quartz. September 25, 2018.

 It’s still the Wild West but it’s up to us to change that. 

Published by Miriam Greenfield

I have more than 20 years of experience creating, writing and producing compelling feature stories and documentaries for television and digital media. I am a 4-time National Sports Emmy award winner with more than 30 nominations.

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