Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now

Column: From radio to YouTube, advertising is evolving with us

Nowadays many programmes are watched on social media platforms instead of TV, and are often derided as examples of “branded entertainment” – but they’re just newer versions of an old advertising strategy, writes Cynthia B. Meyers.

Cynthia B. Meyers

THE US TELECOMMUNICATIONS corporation AT&T has produced a teen reality programme, @summerbreak, seen not on TV but on social media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr. General Electric is sponsoring articles in the magazine The Economist. Pepsico has a blog site, Green- Label, devoted to skateboarding, rap music, and other interests of “millennial males.”

These examples of branded content, sometimes called content marketing or branded entertainment, are new versions of an old advertising strategy. Advertisers in the 1930s wanted to use a new medium, radio, but they were worried that advertising would alienate listeners. So they integrated the advertising into the entertainment, which they sponsored, controlled, and owned.

In the 1930s-50s, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn was the top advertising agency making “institutional advertising,” or corporate image advertising. Rather than sell a specific product, BBDO created ad campaigns for clients such as General Electric, General Motors, Du Pont, and US Steel that were designed to endear those large corporations to consumers, associating them with laudable values like progress, innovation, and growth. For example, in the 1920s BBDO made print ads for General Electric promoting the use of electricity generally.

In the 1930s, BBDO produced a radio programme for General Motors, Parade of States, that celebrated the attractions in various US states that might be reached by automobile. For Du Pont, a chemicals manufacturer accused of war profiteering, BBDO produced Cavalcade of America, a radio docudrama about inventors and innovators. For US Steel, BBDO oversaw Theatre Guild on the Air (1945-53) a radio anthology programme that presented a different live play every week in order to associate the “industrial family that serves the nation” with highbrow culture.

When it shifted to television in 1953, the programme was renamed US Steel Hour. BBDO worked to associate GE with highbrow culture in the 1950s anthology drama television program, General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. In each case, BBDO associated a corporate brand not with a product, but with a feeling.

US Steel HourOUP.fwThe US Steel Hour was a 1950s live drama anthology television program, overseen by BBDO, designed to associate the manufacturer with highbrow theatre. Screenshot via YouTube.

Reaching audiences who may not see television commercials

Today, BBDO is helping produce branded content on digital platforms, especially for advertisers concerned with reaching audiences who may not see television commercials. BBDO’s client General Electric hopes that its sponsored articles in The Economist will convince readers of its commitment to innovative technology.

BBDO’s client AT&T promotes cellular phone services with the reality series @summerbreak. The product placement is subtle. For example, teenagers near an airport use their phones to take “selfies” showing a plane taking off in the background. BBDO’s client Pepsico promotes its Mountain Dew brand with a site designed to appeal to its target market, young men, for which it has recruited music entertainers like Joey Badass.

better summerbreak plane selfieOUP.fwAn AT&T @summerbreak cast member uses his cell phone to take a “selfie” with a flying aeroplane. The online reality show promotes the use of cell phone services. Screenshot via YouTube.

Creative conflicts and negative publicity

The Green Label site doesn’t interrupt viewers with obvious advertising, but it carefully brands all the entertainment with the green theme of the Mountain Dew packaging.

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

However, advertisers today, like advertisers of the past, face challenges integrating advertising and entertainment. As BBDO’s client Pepsi once learned after featuring Madonna in a 1989 television commercial, close association between advertiser and entertainer may lead to negative publicity. And the goals of the advertiser may conflict with those of the creative artists and producers.

Nonetheless, now that audiences have so many options, advertisers and agencies believe that more advertising must resemble the content and entertainment that they think audiences want. More, not less, branded entertainment is in our future, just as it was in our past.

Cynthia B. Meyers is author of A Word from Our Sponsor published by Fordham University Press. She is an Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City. She received her Ph.D. in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford University Press blog.

Column: Hey, ads! Stop looking at me while I’m on the toilet!

Read: Facebook sued for allegedly using your private messages to tailor ads

About the author:

Cynthia B. Meyers

Read next: