During the broadcast of “CNN Heroes” on Sunday night, you’ll see Subaru president Tom Doll deliver a video message about the automaker matching viewers’ online donations – dollar for dollar -- to the 10 people being spotlighted for their good deeds. A lead-in tease in the corner of the screen will say, “A CNN Heroes Success Story Made Possible by Subaru.”
Then, when Doll finishes, you’ll see Sandra Tooley, her hands in a boxer’s wrist wrap, inside a gym. “I tried sobriety on my own before,” she tells us. “I told myself I didn’t need anybody else’s help; I could do this on my own. And it kind of took the last relapse for me to realize that, no, I can’t do this on my own,” Tooley says as the camera cuts to young girl jumping rope in a boxing ring. “My daughter is a beautiful person and I want to be the best person that I can for her.”
It’s certainly not your typical piece of content marketing for an automaker. The vignette is part of one of three compelling documentary-style narratives that CNN’s Courageous brand studio shot this year for the Peabody-award winning show hosted by Anderson Cooper. Each takes a look at the impact Subaru’s donations have made on people who have been helped by prior Top 10 nominees for the award.
All three stories, each more than two minutes, are promoted in native cards on CNNHeroes.com, as well as in native zones across the CNN homepage and section front. But Tooley’s story — edited down to two minutes — will be the first branded content piece the network has featured in a commercial break where :30s normally reside.
“It’s indicative of where CNN at large is going,” says Otto Bell, VP and group creative director for Courageous, “and I think doing it on this flagship show is really a statement of intent.”
Tooley is a member of Phoenix Multisport, a nonprofit “sober active community” that’s now operating in five locations from Boston to Orange County, in part thanks to Subaru’s funding after founder Scott Strobe’s Top 10 finish in 2012. Its mission is to create a place where people in recovery can, as Strobe did, make new friends and develop emotional strength through activities such as boxing, yoga, strength training, biking and rock climbing.
Another story produced by Courageous features several adults with physical disabilities who have been helped by Ned Norton, a 2014 Top 10 finalist whose Albany, N.Y.-based Warriors on Wheels provides exercise equipment and training. Norton has used the Subaru funds to expand his program to 3,000 clients nationwide; he also provides live demonstration via video chats.
The third mini-doc features Jene Prioleau and her two young children, whose father, Angelo, was shot and killed on the street. They receive counseling at Roberta’s House, a support center in Baltimore founded by Annette March-Grier, a nurse and bereavement facilitator who also was a Top Ten finalist in 2014.
The still (above) shows Prioleau’s daughter, Janya, holding a pair of pants her dad bought for her on a shipping trip. “The outfit he bought me? I still have it. It’s little, but I’m not throwing it away,” she’s saying in the piece. “I’m keeping it forever and ever and ever. Yeah.”
This is Subaru’s eighth year partnering with “CNN Heroes,” as the platform aligns with the objectives of its annual “Share the Love” campaign, but it’s the first time the car company has worked with Courageous. Subaru national advertising manager Brian Cavallucci praises the team as “phenomenal to work with. They listened to our objectives, valued our input, and we have a co-branded piece that is strategic and is also highly emotional.”
Bell deliberately kept the crews small — “in the tradition of cinéma vérité” — and they spent a good deal of time getting to know their subjects before turning on their cameras. “If you’ve got 10 gaffers standing around, you simply do not get the same results,” he says.
“Everything you see was produced, shot, edited and delivered by Courageous. Full-time cinematographers; full-time storytellers. No freelancing. No outsourcing. It was all done here under our roof,” Bell says proudly,
Well, except for a FAA-certified drone pilot they had to hire to get some footage of Strobe and Tooley scaling a rock face at the end of the Phoenix Multisport story.
That’s an apt metaphor for this series of branded content that not only celebrates human resilience, but also offers hope to a broad range of viewers.