Whoa. There may be something to this "content marketing" thing.
For example, let’s think for a moment of General Electric. I’m feeling pretty gooshy about those folks right now. Inspired even.
Now, I grant you, there are some lingering reservations. GE did dump thousands of tons of carcinogens into U.S. rivers for decades, and God knows what overseas. It has laid off tens of thousands of workers the way you hose off the back deck. With what it spends on lobbying Washington in one year, someone with different priorities could build a battered-women shelter in 200 cities. In 2010 it earned $14.2 billion and had a U.S. tax bill of $0.
Oh, and you know the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant? Built by the folks who bring good things to half-life.
So let’s just say there is some awkward history there. Still, at the moment, I’m seeing GE in a different, flattering, energy-saving compact fluorescent light.
From its warm ‘n’ fuzzy BBDO ads? Nope. Not that. The sudden sentiment is owing entirely to Focus Forward, a simply mesmerizing collection of mini-documentary films, each highlighting -- in GE’s words -- “exceptional people and world-changing ideas that have impacted the course of human development, now and then, or with great potential to significantly affect how we live in the next generation.”
Granted, to you that sounds like p.r. pabulum. But you haven’t seen Invisible Bicycle Helmet, or Hilary’s Straws or Meet Mr. Toilet or Solar Roadways or The Secret of Trees. Each of these videos, and 25 others, documents remarkable ideas conceived, championed and realized by remarkable people who believe in the power of technology to solve problems -- in spite of the obvious quixotic nature of their dreams. A quadriplegic solo yachtswoman? Yeah, sure. Power-generating pavement? Uh huh. Right. A self-contained personal airbag to deploy in a bike accident? Ha ha ha ha ha! Ridiculous!
Except, of course, that it isn’t. As documented by filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, young entrepreneurs Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin spent seven years designing and building exactly such a replacement for the bulky helmet.
Such noted documentarians as Morgan Spurlock, Jessica Yu, Alex Gibney and the legendary Albert Maysles also contributed to the stunning archive of human imagination. Their sole brief: capture the authentic heroism of these enterprises. No sly product shots or GE logo placements. No corporate propaganda. Just stories.
Focus Forward is managed by the production house Cinelan, which arrested my attention on its Web site by quoting a Hopi proverb: “The one who tells the stories rules the world.” Uh oh. I don’t want GE to rule the world; I don’t even trust it to rule the light bulb category. And in a few weeks, I’ll be raising some pointed questions on stage in Cannes -- such as “When your patrons are the Medici, must you put the Galileo incident out of your mind?’
But until then, I’m going to watch Hilary’s Straws about 100 more times and give some thought to Cinelan’s slightly less grandiose claim: the ability to “create brand affinity for clients by building audiences around powerful content.”
In spite of my native reluctance, some level of affinity has been achieved. I’m grateful to the General Electric Co. for identifying our common interests and establishing common ground. Also for thrilling me.
Co-option at work? Doesn’t seem so. They kept their corporate mouth shut and let me just take it all in. And lo and behold, I’m now more predisposed to listen quietly to what they have to say.
These are cool. The question I always have about this sort of thing is whether anyone ever actually sees the work. How are they promoting it?