“Strategic Entertainment”

Chipotle has produced a miniseries about factory farming:

Farmed and Dangerous, which premieres on Hulu on Feb. 17, focuses on a fictional industrial agriculture company that devises a money-saving scheme to feed cows petroleum-based animal pellets. Lots of hijinks with exploding cattle and a nefarious PR spokesman ensue. The show exposes issues in the agriculture industry that Chipotle has publicly denounced, such as dependence on fossil fuels and overuse of antibiotics on animals. But instead of hearing about these points from the restaurant directly, viewers will learn about them by laughing at Twin Peaks star Ray Wise and a wide cast of other characters.

Could this be the future of advertising?

This is not advertising, exactly, but it’s not regular video programming either. Daniel Rosenberg, a partner at Piro, calls it “strategic entertainment.” The goal, he says, is “adding value to people’s lives rather than interrupting it with traditional advertising.” …

“I could produce an award winning ad for a restaurant. You wouldn’t be affected by the ad. You’d go to Yelp,” explains Neal Burns, a professor of advertising at the University of Texas. The Chipotle show, on the other hand, may enhance brand affinity by promoting the company’s beliefs rather than the company’s name. “It’s appropriate for our times,” Burns says. “It’s going to help establish a sense of fondness and [that] eating there is the right thing for me to do.”

Eliza Williams thinks the series might break new ground:

The term ‘branded content’ has been bandied around adland for years now, but there have been few projects that have really managed to pull off the delicate balance between creating something entertaining that also makes sense for a brand. From the trailer, this series looks promising, and it is clear that the team at Piro was fully aware of the dangers that can befall this kind of project. “When brands overextend into the story, it is a let down for everyone,” says Rosenberg. “But when they inspire storytelling everyone appreciates it.

“In truth, advertising creative is typically quite different from storytelling creative,” he continues. “It’s a different creative muscle. While ads usually focus on a single, central proposition, stories focus on broader elements like character arcs, turning points and conflict to propel action and move the story forward. Chipotle’s internal creatives collaborated with Piro and TV and film writers in writers’ rooms to create the right balance between message and entertainment. Entertainment quality was the final measure of what stayed or went, but brand strategy, values and messaging were always at the forefront.”

I don’t have any problem with brands creating innovative advertising online. In fact, more, please! But as these kinds of things proliferate, it seems to me to be even more important that journalistic outlets retain a clear editorial-advertizing distinction. When more and more content is actually advertizing, the distinction between “sponsored content” and “branded content” will be ever tougher to decipher. And magazines or websites will be increasingly confused with pure advertizing. In my view, that’s the end of a distinct Fourth Estate – and a collapse in the notion of any non-commercial speech online.