Paying the piper doesn’t force you to call the tune

Advertiser-funded TV carries overtones of propaganda, but done properly it can have as much integrity as any other media output, says Mischa Alexander

With Heinz’s funding of Dinner Doctors, advertiser-funded programming is again in the spotlight, but what’s all the fuss about? The bone of contention, as Torin Douglas commented in Marketing Week last week, is not that Heinz is “sponsoring” content relevant to its brand, but general suspicion over the funding and the implications this has for television.

The concern of the sceptics is that advertiser-funded programming presents a fresh opportunity for advertisers to “secretly” manipulate audiences and undermine the integrity of broadcasting. Nonsense! Vance Packard’s 1957 critique of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders, has a lot to answer for. It continues to cast a long and paranoic shadow. Putting aside the sensible and effective Independent Television Commission regulations to protect broadcasting integrity, it is just not in advertisers’ interests to secretly manipulate viewers.

Given that today’s consumers are highly media-literate and know they have the power to take or leave advertising, successful marketers recognise that the best conversations to have are ones that are transparent, rather than “secret”.

Marketers are also seeing the decreasing effectiveness of conventional TV advertising, despite a stronger than ever appetite for the medium among consumers. This has put the emphasis on the value of programmes. Why be part of the commercial break when your target market can literally disappear? Through sponsorship, the brand can be part of the programme itself and benefit from the association with its content.

However, advertisers that are interested in programme-led marketing often find that suitable programmes don’t exist. That is when advertiser-funded programming becomes an attractive option.

The idea is to create a successful programme or viewing experience. Any TV show that clearly lacks “integrity” will quickly be dismissed by intelligent viewers. If no one wants to watch the programme, it will be of no value to the brand, however good the fit of the content may be.

Consequently advertisers, broadcasters and programme-makers need to work together, and that can be tricky. The successful process is one in which all parties recognise a common goal: creating a strong programme; and where all parties are clear about their own objectives.

Advertisers clearly have commercial objectives in funding programmes. These must be out in the open, but they do not need to affect the editorial integrity of the programme, as mutual self-interest comes into play. Advertisers need the programme-makers’ skills to flourish if they are to create a successful property.

Rather than undermining the quality of TV, advertiser-funded programming can be seen as a funding vehicle to ensure there are better programmes. That, simply, is in everyone’s interest; broadcasters, programme-makers, advertisers and viewers. After all, to paraphrase William Gibson, no one appreciates “the colour of television tuned to a dead channel”.

Mischa Alexander is a partner at Sponsorvision

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