As Consumers Skip TV Ads, Contemplating a Return to Corporate Sponsorship

Over at Forbes, Adam Thierer ponders whether we could see a return to a model where companies sponsored entire shows or blocks of television, rather than networks selling ads to a bunch of different companies piecemeal throughout an hour or half-hour—especially in an era when consumers are increasingly fast-forwarding ads or skipping them entirely. While audiences certainly don’t like ads, whether becuase they break up storytelling or because they’re insipid, there’s no question that they’d probably like the alternatives to advertising support a lot less, whether that results in higher cable fees, higher iTunes purchase prices, or higher Netflix and Hulu subscriptions. Sponsorships could be less intrusive and could provide coherent framing to an episode of television, and could generate a great deal of good will for a brand if it’s seen to be keeping a show alive.

To a certain extent, Subway’s already done this with Chuck and with product placement in Community. And that brand’s work with NBC’s quirkier shows with more loyal fan bases raises an interesting question: how would such sponsorships work in a way that’s both good for programming and good for the companies that are buying in? Product placement can, of course, end up being more of a limitation than a help. It’s lovely to have a company provide cars for your characters, of course, but it can become awfully irksome if you want to tell a story about a car crash, and the company threatens to pull the cars if they’re shown crashing, crashed, or even if they’re stated to have crashed. An overly rigid approach to corporate and creative synergy can stifle storytelling and end up meaning we see less of the product on-screen.

Subway’s involvement in Chuck and Community, by contrast, always demonstrated an ability to be self-deprecating and a little obvious. On Community, the brand was willing to be the bad guy in aspiring small business owner Shirley’s fight to open up a sandwich shop in the Greendale Community College Cafeteria. The show didn’t have to disparage the sandwiches themselves, which were always implied to be a reasonable if corporate competitor, to use Subway as a specter of disappointment to a character. Similarly with Chuck, Subway’s presence was winking, a bit of placement that felt more like a compact between the company and the fans than two giant corporations.

If sponsorships become a popular model, I’m sure brands will be lining up to form affiliations with the biggest shows like Two and a Half Men and Two Broke Girls. But that’s actually missing the point. If companies want synergy and real, long-term relationships with the fan bases of shows, they need to shop around and pick programming that fits their sensibilities, and where getting what they want out of the relationship doesn’t cause harm to the show in the process. Buying a sponsorship is all about buying goodwill, and that means surprising an audience with the level or nature of your support for a show. It’s the rare situation where selling soap and making art could be well-aligned fo the companies that try to get sponsorship right.