Nonprofits, TV Forge Alliance Over Content Integrations
When entertainment executives at ABC’s "Grey’s Anatomy," MTV’s "16 and Pregnant" and ESPN’s "Bass Masters" integrate public service messages into the content of shows, everybody wins.
That was the message from a panel of experts that gathered during Advertising Week to swap stories and tips about how product placement techniques can be used for social issues.
Content integration is one solution to the increasing competition nonprofits face when they try to get 30-second PSAs on the air. After the FCC dropped the requirement that broadcasters must air PSAs in 1987, consumer advocacy groups predicted that the number of PSAs seen on TV would drop. They were right.
In 2005, the last time the Kaiser Family Foundation studied this issue, it found that on average, only 17 seconds of PSAs per hour were seen. The networks preferred to reserve the slots to promote their own shows, or selling the time to advertisers to make up for lost revenue, based on the number of eyeballs the networks could deliver to advertisers. With more media options in the digital age, viewers have been steadily fleeing the traditional networks.
But the networks now realize that caring about social issues makes them more marketable to their target audience. And that’s good news for PSAs. Since broadcasters pay nothing to use the airwaves, they have an obligation to act in the public interest. Television's promise has always been its ability to educate and enlighten. With content integration, broadcasters can mix education with entertainment. As any teacher knows, this powerful combination makes the audience more engaged.
MTV learned that paying attention to the issues its audience cares about like depicting the reality of parenthood to young people on its "16 and Pregnant," made the network more relevant to teenagers.
“We can forge a deeper relationship if we can help them make connections with [issues like] college or cyberbullying,” said Jason Rzepka, MTV vice president of public affairs. “We will not reach them through programming alone.”
Agencies like Participant Media focus exclusively on embedding messages into programming content to inspire social change. In the film "Contagion," Participant Media explored the idea of what would happen if a deadly virus rapidly spread around the world. It’s social action site, TakePart.com, tells viewers the steps they can take -– from getting an annual flu shot to frequent hand washing –- to help slow the spread of viruses.
“Think of this as spinach mixed with popcorn,” said Wendy Cohen, Participant Media’s director of digital campaigns and community. “We are putting a face to an issue, and movies are a great way to bring people to the table.”
Calle Sjoenell, deputy chief creative officer at BBH in New York, said the trick for advertisers is to choose a social issue that connects with their brands. Sjoenell’s agency worked with Google to promote its Chrome browser with the “It Gets Better” PSA, featuring Dan Savage’s anti-bullying and suicide prevention project targeted at gay Americans.
Eric Asche, chief marketing officer for the American Legacy Foundation, which created the ‘truth’ anti-smoking campaign, said he has more luck integrating stop-smoking themes into shows when he forges a partnership with the network. That's how trying to quit smoking became a topic of conversation between two fishermen throughout a season of ESPN's "Bass Masters."
Everyone on the panel agreed that results are difficult and expensive to measure. But some initial studies are hopeful. The Kaiser Family Foundation worked with ABC’s "Grey’s Anatomy" to place a story line about the low risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV if the mother receives good pre-natal care. Kaiser found that the proportion of viewers who were aware of the message increased by 46% after the first episode aired.
This is all good news for nonprofits, which should rethink their strategic approach to PSAs. Content integration allows nonprofits greater visibility for their cause, especially if the show airs in prime time. But nonprofits shouldn't regard it as free. Asche said it helps if they bring some money to the table when talking to the networks.
It’s time for nonprofits to think beyond the 30-second PSA.