Is Branded Content Helping or Hurting the Online Video Community?

/ Sep 13, 2013


Branded video content online is booming, but that wasn’t always the case. For far too long brands looking to break into the digital space struggled to find their place among online video. Early attempts at branded content either failed to elicit any type of audience engagement or simply screamed desperation. Case in point, the ill-fated Reese’s Puffs, “Reese’s Puffs, Eat Em Up” rap video featuring Tajh Bellow. Yeah, I’ve never heard of him either.

But that was then and this is now, branded content is gaining traction among online audiences. It can be funny, sometimes daring, and sometimes disguised so well people aren’t aware they are watching one big ad for Mountain Dew. Advertisers are thrilled and audiences are content, but is that a good thing for online video as a whole?

Branded online video can generally be broken into two broad categories: (1) a video that is veiled as a wacky online experiment loosely affiliated with a product or brand; or (2) a web series sponsored by a company that shares similar interests to the content within the series.

For the purposes of this argument, we’ll look at branded video category number two, the sponsored web series. While rarely a smash success, branded web shows usually come with top notch production values all provided via their padded-pocket sponsors. This is a massive boon for online video as viewed by the public simply because it tosses out the classic stigma of web video being either amateurish or not having television-style quality.

Shows like the award-winning “Leap Year” and the five-part branded Heineken web series “Dropped” have proven that that longheld stigma has become painfully outdated. These are shows with high-budget production and sharp writing. Online video is winning the war against the “amateurish” argument, and sponsored content is playing a large role in each battle.

What’s more, brands are increasingly getting better at working with “digital natives” — those who know what works and doesn’t on sites like YouTube — to ensure the content fits the audience its intended for. “The more brands are able to speak in the language of YouTube, and the language of online video, the better it will be received by online audiences,” says Zach Blume, managing director at video production firm Portal A, who argues that any harmony from brands and creators comes from a complex understanding of the the web video space.

But as it happens with any independent creator or platform that has welcomed corporate sponsors into its arms, there are negative side effects. For the other side of the coin, we’ll now look at branded video category number one, the thinly veiled, branded “viral video.”

To be fair, these types of branded content are not always cringe-inducing. Oftentimes, as mentioned above, we don’t even realize that branded content is unfolding before us. However, when it is obvious that a corporate hand is guiding things, the result is less than awesome. This, roughly speaking, can be the nail in smaller content creators’ coffins. With YouTube especially, audiences can smell corporate shenanigans a mile away and sometimes that hurts creators, which in turn hurts the community.

If audiences begin to find the same type of branding and content that soured them on television, doesn’t that ultimately defeat the new and innovative feeling online video was fighting to create all along?

Although the online video community seems to be at a crossroads in terms of branded content, in traditional media, this debate is old hat. “I would argue TV shows and movies like ‘Fashion Star’ and ‘The Internship’ that are branded within an inch of their lives cheapen traditional media as much if not more than a few sponsored video misfires on YouTube,” explains Wilson Cleveland, executive producer of “Leap Year,” which was sponsored by insurance company Hiscox.

For Cleveland, who also served as executive producer on one of the web’s first branded shows “The Temp Life,” a brand’s involvement with a creator or series doesn’t necessarily guarantee prestige or quality. “We need to flip the script on this notion of brands being the ‘great validators’ of web video or any other emerging medium,” explains Cleveland. “I believe its the brands that should be more concerned about maintaining a positive perception within the creator community because the creators are the gatekeepers to the audience.”

So is branded content good for the online video community? Most times, it depends on who you are asking. On one hand, branded content is taking television-style web content to new, exciting heights. On the other hand, however, the micro online community is losing its independent “vibe” with each new branded Reese’s Puffs video.

You take the good with the bad it seems, but one thing is certain: Branded video content is not slowing down anytime soon.

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