The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Content

In a recent column, Barbara Lippert commented that Hulu advertisers should be careful about advertising adjacencies in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” That’s a delicate way to couch a phenomenon more akin to bludgeoning.

Not naming names, the variety of big companies advertising on the show was impressive. It was Super Bowl-like, with beautifully produced spots in every case.

Here’s some of what happens in the first couple of episodes: The government murders a man without a trial. Pregnant women are forced to carry out a brutal execution, on-camera. A woman has her eye pulled out of her head for being rude to an instructor.  Dead bodies are shown — of men guilty only of trying to save their wives from slavery. A father is shot by a government death squad in earshot of his wife and daughter. A woman is tortured with a cattle prod simply for befriending a suspected lesbian.



And I’m just getting started.

How about a 7Up now?

On the heels of a massive flap about online ads adjacent to objectionable content, the ads here are intentionally adjacent to horrendous violence.

And somebody made a metric butt-load of money from all the millions spent on those ads.

After watching the first few episodes,  I got a call from my wife, incredulous, as she described what happens next: A woman had been beaten so badly that she retreated to a closet and curled up the fetal position, devastated, in shock.  Cut to an ad for an antidepressant!

Was that on purpose? I have no idea. With streaming, anything is possible.  If it was on purpose, I suppose it was brilliant. After all, it presses all the buttons. The content was engaging, and the situation fit the brand benefit perfectly.  

So, the questions come up: Can a context be too poignant for advertising? Does emotional impact, so desired by directors, turn on itself with respect to the appropriateness of advertising? If a line was crossed, what was it?

I mean, adjacency to violence is old-hat. Was this TV too close to the bone, given a neo-Nazi in the White House — or am I being oversensitive? Or is there a different standard for TV (or whatever you call those pixels that come over the internet to my living room wall)?

Even the dumbest of programmatic content filters would have nixed something like a snuff film. But this content was apparently a golden opportunity for brands.  Was the horrendous violence offset by moral high ground — the mantle of literary protest? Was it because the advertisers, swayed by the show’s production quality and desperate for video reach, could not resist? Maybe it was because the ads did not directly support the portrayed horrors -- but instead, the people who helped us imagine them.

Or maybe advertisers wanted to support the values projected by government-sponsored murder and rape? Never mind. Advertisers spent most of March and April complaining about adjacencies like that.

So, was that hypocrisy? Maybe they just dinged You Tube because they didn’t trust the medium, and adjacency was an excuse to get salespeople off their back. If you know, please tell me.

The situation raises the old saw about any attention being good attention, but adds a new dimension. If the depth of attention is proportional to the annoyance upon being interrupted, the producers of movie-like TV content have some research to do. Does brand advertising work better on fluff? Is there an inflection point in the value of attention?  If so, the rise of high-quality long-form content may work against, not for, advertising.

Relative to effectiveness, we know that emotion and recall are connected. But we don’t know exactly how the emotional impact of content halos onto its adjacent advertising.  If that halo exists, you’d better be sure the emotion  supports your brand.

At least for me, the antidepressant brand that advertised on "The Handmaid's Tale" is forever associated with disgust. The juxtaposition is unforgettable. And that, regrettably,  may be the tag line for the victory celebration.

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