Quizzical Believes Branded Content Absolutely Works

I read an article on Screen Africa with a heavy heart. Quizzical Pictures, formerly Curious Pictures, one of South Africa's best known production companies with successful shows like Tshisa, Class Act, Rhythm City and Intersexions under their belt, seemed to tout AFPs in the article.
From branded reality shows for aspiring young actors, to branded cooking and DIY/ building shows, to branded fictional dramas and game shows, branded content has usurped the industry and it appears its here to stay, much to the dismay of people like myself who believe that Advertiser Funded Programs are a threat to creative freedom.

My lament about the fact that the more AFPs we have the less control people who know about story telling or providing relevant content for entertainment will have. 

Does branded content work?

Harriet Gavshon, MD of Quizzical Pictures, a company that produces high quality branded broadcast content, tells Screen Africa ‘absolutely’ – (when it’s done well). 
“The critical thing to remember when evaluating the merits of branded broadcast content is that, it bridges the gap between a traditional TV commercial’s emotive power and a PR campaign’s ability to educate. When done well it not only entertains, but it educates your market, and by doing so, wins their interest and kinship. So not only are we tackling the trust factor, but also we adding even greater value to your overall ATL campaign – it’s a support tool. ” 
To illustrate this, Quizzical Pictures was commissioned in 2012 and 2011 to produce the broadcast component of Amstel’s branded content campaign, Class Act. With research indicating that their target audience would not be as receptive to a highly emotive Amstel TVC as its core markets were, it required Amstel’s agency, OwenKessel and their partner Quizzical Pictures, to come up with an innovative use of mass media to engage interest. That’s when AFP (Advertiser Funded Programming) was applied. Enter Class Act, a reality TV series broadcast on SABC1 primetime, which in its simplest form is Idols for promising actors.

According to the company the results were impressive:
  • It gained the highest viewership amongst its target audience – best viewed TV program in South Africa on Saturdays from March to June in the tier LSM 5-7
  • It held a strong and consistent position in the top 20 of best watched SA TV programmes per week with peaks in the top 10 during 13 weeks of the TV programme; By the end of the show, 60% of Amstel’s LSM 5-7 target audience had heard about Class Act. 40% had watched it, which is the highest rate by far of all social demographic groups
  • It generated a strong liking for the show – 93% of a panel tested enjoyed the show; 68% thought Class Act is more enjoyable to watch than other TV shows, and 100% wanted a Class Act season 2
  • It gained strong viewership involvement – 700, 000 SMS votes; 80, 000 website page visits; 120, 000 mobisite page visits and 9, 500 Facebook visits with 2, 750 loyal Facebook fans

From a brand equity point of view, the results were equally impressive:
  • Of the panel tested, 82% mentioned Amstel as the key sponsor; 99% agreeing that Class Act was a real opportunity; 75% thought Amstel became more appealing because of Class Act.
  • Ultimately Amstel was able to generate a constant presence and a very high AR level of 4, 200 ARs, which resulted in the # 1 SOV in the beer category for the period January – June 2010, amongst the LSM 5-7 market.
Interesting numbers and I am certain the results must have pleased the suits at Amstel but as I look at the above mentioned information all I see is Amstel cashing in, not necessarily a vehicle to boost content development in the industry. 

Let's face it, Season 2 of Class Act was a disappointment because unlike Season 1 the show did not listen to what its viewers wanted but seemed to focus more on glorifying the brand. And that is exactly my problem with AFPs. 

Who makes the decisions on content when it comes to AFPs? Surely the people who fork out the cash will have more say, thus perpetuating the sad reality of our industry where talent takes a backseat to falsely perceived popularity. 

The fact that Class Act made bold promises that they have yet to meet almost guaranteed that the viewers would loose faith in the show and I doubt a 3rd season would garner any interest. We still waiting for Season 1 winner, Sdumo Mtshali's movie before we can even talk about Season 2 winners. 

At the end of the day Class Act was a home-run for the Amstel Brand, no doubt about it, but if you ask a lot of people they would agree that Season 2 of the show left a lot to be desired on entertainment value mainly because the show felt more like a long Amstel TV ad. 

What will Class Act's legacy be? The glory for the show's ground breaking format will go to Amstel but unfortunately unlike a show like Jam Alley (the original version) this show will go into oblivion as just another AFP. 

Production companies are not Advertising Agencies. Their main focus should never be about glorifying brands but rather be a platform to let creative freedom and storytelling reign. The minute brands become more important than storytelling that is when quality and substance goes out of the window, because instead of giving the audience what they want, the production companies will bombard us with what the Sponsors -- "their client" -- think we should have. 

Is there a future for Non-AFPs?

The future looks bleak at this moment. If you look at all the up coming shows this season across all channels 90% are AFPs or have some brand association somewhere. New shows that have aired this year, Glambition, Cooking Gospel, etc have sponsors branded all over them. 

The sad reality is that when AFPs take over, the doors get shut for young inexperienced minds to enter the game. Big production companies can attract big sponsors, which then means a simple guy like Phil with a great idea will never see it on TV because I can not get a big sponsor behind me. 
"What we always have to ask is: are we providing enough entertainment and are we marshalling the extraordinary power of storytelling to really engage your market with your brand? And is the story we are telling absolutely aligned with the story your brand is wanting to tell?”  - said Gavshon to Screen Africa
I am disappointed by Quizzical's blatant support for Branded content without acknowledging its dangers but I have great admiration for Harriet Gavshon, with that I can live with the hope that people like her value substance over the bottom line. South African television industry is in dire need of heroes. 

We need people who will stand their ground and say enough with this bureaucracy. 

South African audience deserves better than the garbage they have been fed. It is not up to the channels to commission better shows, because they won't, it is up to the production companies to pitch better shows and give creative freedom the space it needs to flourish.  

I am not against AFPs. I just think they should not become the norm. Yes, production companies need to make money and someone has to pay for shows to be created. But there should also be room for shows that are independent of brand agendas. Shows that are just there to entertain not sell us anything. I miss those days. 

The titans of the industry, Ochre, Quizzical, Red Pepper, Endemol, etc have a moral responsibility not to allow the industry to be usurped by advertisers.

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