Targeting consumers who skip commercials, brands turn to sponsored documentaries

Wendy Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

SAN FRANCISCO -- Harbinder Singh was skeptical about arranged marriages, but when he received a photo of his potential wife-to-be, he was wowed. "The charm, the smile, the personality ... it shines right there," he said.

Arvinder, a young woman in her early 20s in India, was also love-struck by Harbinder's picture. She saw the New Yorker's kind, loving eyes -- a smile that seemed to be directed at her.

A thing as simple as looking at an old-fashioned, physical photograph sparked a whirlwind romance and a lifetime of love -- all of it captured in a five-minute documentary, "At First Sight," posted online and shown as part of a larger series at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. But it wasn't just a heartwarming tale -- it was also a subtle pitch for photo printers, with the YouTube version ending with the tagline, "What memories will you print?" followed by "HP keep reinventing."

Since the dawn of TV, entertainment and advertising have been closely intertwined. In the 1950s, companies sponsored programs such as "The Colgate Comedy Hour," where it was common to hear pitches for household products before the show and even see them mentioned in the program's narratives. But as technology evolved, more consumers fast-forwarded through ads and cut the cord altogether. Brands sought out viral video content that they could sponsor on social media, fueling the growth of companies such as BuzzFeed and Vox. Now, they are going a step further by partnering directly with filmmakers.

Whether the aim is to encourage people to buy photo printers, athletic shoes or even fried chicken, companies such as HP, Nike and Church's Chicken are increasingly pouring money into documentaries in hopes of capturing the attention of consumers who shun traditional commercials. The trend has been a boon to filmmakers such as East Hollywood's Dirty Robber. But it has also stirred debate over the role of advertising in nonfiction storytelling.

"As most audiences have fled (watching commercials on traditional television), you really have to reimagine how you are going to communicate with people. ... A documentary is a really nice way," said James DeJulio, chief executive of Tongal. The Santa Monica firm runs a platform that connects creators and other talent with entertainment companies and brands.

Sponsored Video Stories

Funding remains a challenge for documentary filmmakers, who often rely on grants. Corporations can provide an additional investment boost, said Caty Borum Chattoo, director of American University's Center for Media and Social Impact in Washington, D.C.

Last year, 26% of documentary directors and producers said they planned to work on branded documentaries sponsored by a company, according to a study by the center. "Documentary filmmakers are interested in diversifying their potential forms of revenue and funding," Borum Chattoo said.

For their part, companies say they believe sponsored documentaries are effective at reaching newer audiences.

"The key to standing out from the noise is to tell stories that are genuine and connect with people," said Angela Matusik, HP's head of brand journalism.


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