Hey, let's watch content on TV tonight! Sounds ridiculous? You bet. Content is an annoying word. We're not talking about photons here. We're talking about shows. Sometimes commercial ideas actually transcend the science of marketing and express thoughts and dreams and real human values and so-called content spins out of it that is more than the sum of branding agendas.
The most ambitious examples are long-form - another unfortunate choice of words - that play as pure entertainment with not a logo in sight. And yet, deep down inside a brand message lurks.
ABC's Cavemen series - spun-off from those brilliant Geico caveman commercials that toyed with our prejudices, made a mockery of political correctness and laughed at the arrogance of Madison Avenue. Although not mentioned in the show, the brand lingered backstage as most viewers were aware of the series' provenance. Unfortunately ABC toned down the racial stereotyping allusions of the original spots and killed the concept. The antediluvian sitcom was put on hiatus and isn't expected back.
A more successful recent example was the Sundance Channel's documentary series Nimrod Nation, which spun out of an ESPN campaign created by Wieden + Kennedy and directed by Brett Morgen. The campaign featured the simple citizens of Watersmeet Township in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and their beloved high school basketball team, the Nimrods. The campaign was so popular the team made guest appearances on late-night TV and sold close to $550,000 worth of Nimrod shirts, hoodies and other gear. Morgen, who had directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, returned to shoot 12 half-hour episodes that capture the slow pace, the boredom, the yearnings and dreams of small-town America. Also, by chance really, the series continued to keep the ESPN message alive, despite the client.
Morgen's production office used to be in Soho, but he recently pulled up stakes and now operates out of an office above a pizza parlor on Main Street of the pinhead capital of the world, working-class Rockaway Beach, Queens. One can imagine the Ramones praising Morgen's arrival: "Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you - one of us!" He is living at his in-law's house at the moment, with his wife and three kids, while a local contractor builds him a new home. He is in touch with some very real commonplace stuff, including the contractor who gives him agita. It's no surprise Morgen created a masterful portrait of the quotidian life.
"I've always wanted to make a film about small-town America," says Morgen. "And while I was working on the ESPN ads I fell in love with Watersmeet. I decided to go back there. I called Wieden and told them I wanted to pursue a long-form TV series. I really didn't want to do a sports-driven show; I wanted it to be more like a family reality show, without the histrionic crap of reality TV."
Wieden was game. They took the idea to ESPN first, but they turned it down. "The thing I was most attracted [to] was that Sundance doesn't have advertisers. We were free to do what we wanted, free to have final cut, free to be profane. Whenever you see high school kids on MTV, they can't be heard cursing or seen slaughtering animals. Advertisers wouldn't allow it. With Sundance we did it all."
Nimrod Nation stands on its own; it's original, it conveys universal truths rather than brand messages and yet the ESPN aura lurks in the backwoods of Watersmeet. Viewers make the connection between the ads and the series. Was this intentional? Not really, says Morgen. "Werner Herzog doing a reality show - that's how I envisioned the project."
Yet he admits the brand associations are there, and he's not above leveraging them the next time around. "A big reality show producer saw my Kleenex campaign," says Morgen, referring to his "Let It Out" spots featuring real people sniffling into tissues while on a couch placed in the street. "He wanted to make a TV series out of them. He thought it was a good way to expand the brand message, and it was." The show never happened, but other opportunities will surely present themselves.
"A lot of these series ideas are coming up now before spots are finished," says Morgen. "We're developing ad components and series components simultaneously. More and more film will spin out of ads."
Richard Linnett is director of entertainment marketing at Fathom Communications. (firstname.lastname@example.org)