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Stirrings of a Branded Doc Backlash – and the Need for Transparency & Best Practices

Late last year – just a few weeks ago – I predicted that we’d see a branded content backlash in 2020. I assumed this would be caused by a Jenner/Pepsi type moment, but we may be seeing the beginnings of this backlash in a new piece from 100Reporters, detailing many recent transparency and ethical lapses in branded content. Most of the criticisms are well-founded, but they also point to some steps the industry can take in 2020 to mitigate the consequences of any backlash – namely, by developing best practices for branded content, starting with transparency when it comes to brand funding and goals.

The article, Documentaries as Advertising - Corporate Interests Turn to Indie Docs for Influence; Audiences in the Dark by Tim Schwab, argues that too many corporate-funded documentaries hide –or conveniently elide - their corporate financing and potential conflicts of interest. Schwab, makes a decent case that this lack of transparency can fool audiences and critics alike. He uses examples such as Food Evolution by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, a pro-GMO film that didn’t disclose its ties to agribusiness interests, and even misrepresented famous anti-GMO activists like Marion Nestle as being pro-GMO. In this example, and the others Schwab uses, it’s not that the arguments presented are necessarily wrong, but that their funding – and conflicts of interest – were not prominently disclosed.

While many of Schwab’s examples are of films financed by lobbyist groups, or even founders of brands with interests in specific takes on a given subject, his overall argument pertains to any brand-funded documentary – that it can be even harder to “discern nonfiction from fiction, documentary from public relations, news from fake news.” He goes on to argue that while journalists have a code of conduct mandating that reporters should “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two,” there are no such guidelines for documentaries in general or for branded content.

As a journalist writing for a nonprofit portal dedicated to investigative reporting and ethics, he is rightly concerned about the rise of branded content and its impact on neutral journalism. But does this apply to branded content generally? I’d argue that any corporation – even those who clearly have a point of view they want to express through their films – should also be concerned about these same issues, and would do well to consider establishing best practices and protocols for branded content. While not all branded content aspires to be journalism, and much of it is being made purely for entertainment value, the potential problems with such practices are worthy of our attention.

If one of the primary reasons brands are turning to documentary films is to break through to consumers with an authentic brand message, there’s a danger that honest messages will be crowded out by less ethical media, and the latter could taint the entire field. The last thing quality branded content needs is to be lumped together with non-transparent messaging that smells like “purpose washing” to consumers. And in a world where “fake news” is being tossed around about almost all media – good or bad, left or right, etc. – we don’t need branded content to automatically be lumped in with everything else that is fake. Your film’s audiences, critics and potential allies will feel their time and intellects are being respected when you are more transparent about both your funding of and your goals for such films and media.

The article quotes Pat Aufdeheide of American University, a well-respected documentary scholar, saying that documentarians need to have more open conversations about ethics, which “means moving beyond “morally denouncing, which is what everyone is afraid of with ethics. The questions we should be asking are, “What are the consequences of this, at a point at which we’re all worried about fake news?””

My argument is that brands that care about such ethics should be part of this conversation, and should help start and lead it with their corporate colleagues. Your consumers/audiences are demanding more authenticity, and this starts with transparency. The best way to bring transparency and other ethical concerns to bear on the sector is to start the conversation, develop best practices for branded content ethics, and utilize them in your work, setting an example for others who follow.

What would such best practices include? The first is obvious – transparency. And this would seem the easiest to address – most corporations want their logo displayed prominently at the beginning of any film they sponsor/fund. But sometimes the distributors/broadcasters/SVOD partners balk at prominent logos – this debate shows us that there is even more reason to fight for brand awareness, so as to avoid any confusion among audiences. Even when filmmakers have complete creative control and final cut, brand funding should be transparent. When such funding doesn’t warrant a “presented by” or other prominent branding, it should still be disclosed prominently in all artwork and in the credits. Brands should be transparent about their funding for such films in all cases, and distribution partners should require this transparency in their contracts when they acquire these films. Brands should likewise require such transparency from the agencies and producers they work with, by including it in their contracts.

Other best practices should include – clarity around creative control, who has it, and to what extent; and acknowledging your brand’s interests in the content, by being open about your goals, potential conflicts and other interests in the press surrounding the film. If your goals/values are clear and well-represented, it should be easy to signal these in your public statements, and in the promotions for the film. Storytelling mechanisms can help as well – the best branded content isn’t a commercial for your viewpoint, but it does seamlessly integrate your values in the story itself. A good example of this came from Great Big Story and P&G when they made The Words Matter. Not only is there a P&G logo up front, but the film also doesn’t hide its branded origins, or how it helps push the P&G story (warts and all) – in fact, these components of the story are central to its interest and power.

These are just a few examples of best practices we should establish for branded content. I am sure there are more, and better, ideas out there. My hope is that those coming together at BrandStorytelling can begin conversations on these best practices and possibly work towards our own code of conduct.

And to be transparent, that’s one of the goals of the Brand-Foundation-Alliance, which I helped found at last year’s BrandStorytelling conference, and which will be meeting again this January in Park City. We’re bringing together foundations and brands who care about media for impact to develop best practices. Let’s be honest – most funders of media, including foundations, have an agenda. Everyone involved with documentary media will be well-served by establishing best practices for transparency, if not a code of conduct. Want to be part of this conversation? Drop me a line and we’ll find a time at the conference.


About Brian Newman

Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, consults on content development, financing, distribution and marketing to help connect brands and filmmakers with audiences. Clients include: Patagonia, REI, Keen, Yeti Coolers, New York Times, Shopify Studios, Stripe, Sonos, Sundance, Vulcan Productions and Zero Point Zero. Brian is the producer of Love & Taxes, The Outside Story, and The Ground Between Us, and executive producer of Shored Up. Brian has served as CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, and is on the advisory board of the Camden International Film Festival.

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