Here's how I envision the creative genesis of most of the online video campaigns that are reviewed in this here space:
Chief Marketing, Monetization and Meme Officer: Big Dumb Brand gave us some money to spend on the Internet. I have a crazy thought: Let's make a video!
Director of Internet Social Media: Better still, let's make a VIRAL video!
CMMMO: Awesome! You set up the YouTube channel, I'll book a table at Modestly Upscale Family Restaurant Inexplicably Targeting 20-Somethings to celebrate!
DISM: Yes! Thursday is Oyster-tini Night!
The point is that, regardless of how much money, time and creative energy are actually devoted to these campaigns, a solid 85% of them come off underrealized and sadly obvious. That's why it's a happy morning when I happen upon a webisode-dealie like "Originals," a nine-part series produced by Fresh Baked Entertainment to help launch McDonald's McCafé drinks in Canada. While it may employ the overworn mockumentary format, "Originals" is the rare piece of branded content with a sense of genre awareness. To wit, it bills itself as "an original webseries completely lacking any originality."
Which, of course, it isn't/doesn't. There are lots of things to like about "Originals," particularly the sunny, silly tone and the wink-/nudge-free performances by the two lead doofuses (doofi?), producer Jason and writer Bryce. There isn't a single individual associated with the series who thinks he's creating an enduring artistic or comedic monument, and that absence of self-importance contributes to its effortless feel.
But what I enjoy the most is the obnoxiously overengineered product placement. I intend this as high praise: "Originals" goes so far over the top in hyping McDonald's that the branding and marketing come across as entertaining. Not only do the leads use a retro-deco'd McDonald's as their work HQ and position their McCafés for maximum exposure, but they repeatedly unleash asides like "the lattes are pretty tasty." Over the course of the nine episodes, we're treated to something like 2,700 shots of foamy, frothy McCafés and about 450 more of the chain's salad-like offerings. One character, Luther, is shown eating in just about every scene; another describes the McDonald's atmosphere as "relaxing."
Uh, this was intentional, right? Anyway, the central conceit of "Originals" - that all of the good ideas are taken - is a natural for the branded-content space. The plays on Friends and The Big Bang Theory are made with warmth rather than satiric bite, and somebody clearly enjoyed him/herself with the random nods to Goodfellas and Simon Cowell (reimagined in the final ep as a female network exec).
Along those lines, for a branded series associated with a monster-grade corporate institution like McDonald's, the humor gets a bit… what's the word I'm looking for here?... funny. There are some unexpected (and thus delightful) inappropriate moments, as when a spontaneous sitcom smooch is complicated by a height disparity or when the producer sniffs around - literally - his actress crush. Such edgy bits are rare for the genre.
The last episode of "Originals" is billed as the season finale, which in theory could mean that there's more to come. I hope there is, even if an obscure niche restaurateur like McDonald's no longer needs the boost, because the characters have life left in them yet. If not, here's hoping that today's eager armies of online brand meme-keteers take something away from "Originals": namely, that subtlety in brand bombardment is overrated.