Has Branded Content Lost Its Way?

I want to issue you a warning. This post might trigger some readers. However, this topic is important and needs addressing: Ethical Branded Content, specifically the ethics of branded content from tobacco, hate groups, political organizations, alcohol, and firearms industries.

Branded Content

If you are unfamiliar with the term branded content, it’s the ability to create storytelling content outside of traditional mediums,  targeting specific users and increasing the brand’s objectives. Branded content is incredible at engaging an audience, and when done correctly, it can create more leads for a company.

Think of a taco company. They just came up with a new taco and want to sell more. Content marketers get together in a room and hatch a plan to produce a viral video of someone eating 45 tacos in one minute using #TacoChallenge as their caption. They find their taco eating man and pay him and the crew for their production services. 

The video becomes posted on the Taco company’s social media platforms and immediately becomes viral. Next thing we know,  hundreds of thousands of people participate in the Taco Challenge across the globe. News stations across the country broadcast the video to their audiences (for free, might I add), and you can’t go anywhere without seeing tacos. Quite a successful branded content campaign!

Acura

“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Sponsored by Acura

Let’s look at a real-world example. Jerry Seinfeld’s popular web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is a branded content series produced by Acura. At the onset of the series, the series was available on Crackle for free, and viewers would also see brief commercials featuring Acura vehicles. Acura cars appear throughout the series. The series is now available on Netflix, and has grown to many seasons. (It’s a fun series worth watching!)

Brand content is awesome, right? Well, there’s a darker side to this accepted practice.

Branded Content Concerns

The issue I have with branded content that there are often no warnings, no labels, no identifiers that a brand produces content. Branded content integrates so well on social media and the internet, and it’s hard for people to distinguish what is branded content and what is not. I worry that the company’s branded content dupes consumers. For example, the time Turbo Tax tricked customers into paying for their free services. 

Branded content can also mask the true and hidden objectives of a company’s content. I wonder how many people have viewed “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and did not realize they are watching a large-scale Acura commercial. 

Branded content is preying on America’s media literacy crisis. Branded content is not journalism. This practice allows any organization to explicitly misrepresent the truth, harms a viewer, and becomes a hazard for our democracy. 

Ethics of Branded Content

If an organization wanted to use branded content strategies to promote hatred, violence, drugs, tobacco, guns, or political incitements. Could they do that? Well, yes, of course, they can. Although there is much ambiguity on how much protection the First Amendment offers on social media and branded content, the First Amendment protects most free speech. Does it make it ethical?

I’d argue no, it’s not. 

I’d argue that branded content must be created and distributed ethically. Although there is no set branded content code of ethics, I’m encouraged by the SBJ Code of Ethics. When creating branded content; companies must consider the following:

  • Is it produced honestly?
  • Does it conflate the truth?
  • Does it respect others?
  • Be accountable and transparent.
  • What is the real motive/need for this branded content?
  • Does it minimize harm?

Jerry Seinfeld may be a perfect example of ethical branded content. The content is produced honestly, does not conflate the truth, respects clothes, and minimizes harm. Although it’s a blurry line of a glorified Acura commerical and entertainment, no one is going to get hurt after viewing ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.’

NRA TV

Before I continue, please understand this topic is not a debate or argument about the Second Amendment, but analyzes the ethics of the NRA’s branded content. 

NRA TV is a prime example of branded content that is unethical. NRA-TV is a YouTube channel developed by the National Rifle Association. The channel has over 17 million views and is available for anyone to view, including children. The professionally created content mimics traditional broadcast media, and much of the content has little to do with guns. However, the content promotes far-right conservative political talking points.  

The content produced by the NRA TV has dangerous consequences. The channel has become a breeding pool for hatred, violence, and fearmongering content. There are no disclaimers, no warnings, and no identifiers that tell the viewer this is branded content. The viewer can assume what they are seeing is the truth and confirms the audience’s implicit bias. The content explicitly preys on gun control fears, promotes racist ideologies and dangerous political rhetoric.

In “The Violence of Lies” the NRA calls for the “the only we stop we save our country, our freedom, is to fight violence with a clenched fist of truth.”

If we look at the five ethical suggestions I made prior, we can see that NRA TV is not honest in its branded content. 

  • NRA TV produces content that is not honest, often filled with conspiracy theories.
  • NRA TV regularly conflates the truth. Athletes are not protesting the American flag, but the injustice faced by minority Americans and law enforcement, a topic left out from the NRA TV content.
  • The NRA TV respects only one type of person, conservative gun owners. Everyone else, including Muslim congress members, are the “enemy.”
  • The NRA TV does not limit harm but instead promotes harm. NRA TV threatens democrats, media members, immigrants, and others regularly. They frequently use words “fight,” “perish,” “freedom,” “patriots,”  

The NRA shut down NRA-TV in 2019, but the content still exists. During the January incitement of the US Capitol, President Donald Trump used similar words to incite his supporters.  I am curious how many NRA-TV subscribers attended the insurrection and how many insurrection seeds were planted by the NRA TV in the years prior to 2020.

A screen shot of a commentor on NRATV YouTube calls for the “blood of patriots and tyrants.”

There has to be a better way, and we have to hold branded content to a higher standard. 

Branded Content Solutions

There was a time where information had a gatekeeper, the media. At one point, the media was the arbiter of truth, taking in information, filtering the garbage, and delivering factual information to the masses. Those days are gone, and humans must now seek solutions to a problem we created.

In a perfect world, I would love to see mandatory disclaimers embedded on all branded content. I’d love to see companies and organizations say, “this content you’re seeing is content we created, and how much we spent to make this.” I’d also love to see mandatory labels for any content that is opinion, analyst-based, or pure fiction. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see what companies were truly seeking with their content altogether?

I’d also love to see fines to encourage those who skip the disclaimer. Maybe, $35,000 per view. That might get a company’s attention and maybe get them thinking responsibly. Currently, there are Advertising guidelines available, but there is a lack of accountability and enforcement. There is also no accountability for any content that purposely misleads an audience.

Labeling and transparency will only go so far. It will require social media companies and technology to develop new solutions to limit the spread of unethical branded content, an approach no tech company wants to take. It will also require companies and people’s commitment to producing branded content ethically responsible, something I don’t see happening anytime soon. That would mean people would have to come together and find common ground.

I am an optimist and look forward to the day when ethical content distribution is universal.


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