Sponsorship: Old and New

Advertiser sponsorship of program content continues to expand on television and in online media. At the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) conference I attended earlier this year as a faculty fellow, there were many panels on new forms of sponsorship.

Producer and former NBC Programming executive Ben Silverman was there to promote the fast food chain Subway’s sponsored programming distributed on Facebook.  A panel on reality programming touched on evolving product placement and sponsorship. Twentieth Century TV presented on digitally inserted brand integrations in syndicated programming—allowing flexibility and the insertion of other sponsors’ products in future airings.

New media of all sorts were trumpeted as facilitating these new strategies. At the same time, I heard several panelists mention that the television industry was simply returning to its “1950s” roots, when sponsorship was required to produce programs. (Of course, broadcast programming has had sponsors since the mid-1920s!)

However, despite the new media bells and whistles, sponsorship still provides challenges to advertisers and program producers.

During the network radio era (the 1930s & 1940s), the problems with sponsorship were so obvious as to become a popular culture trope, as in films such as A Letter to Three Wives and The Hucksters, in which despotic advertisers demanded obnoxious programming, annoying audiences with their cluelessness.

But the problem with sponsorship went beyond the despotism of advertisers. Under the sponsorship system, advertisers were limited to their one sponsored program for reaching audiences. If audiences didn’t happen to be interested in that particular program, such as The Chase & Sanborn Hour, the advertiser had no other way to reach them on radio. If audiences did not like a performer, or the performer misbehaved or was politically controversial, negative associations between star and advertised product could undermine the entire venture.

By the 1960s, the magazine plan” replaced program sponsorship. Advertisers could buy interstitial minutes of time within multiple programs, like single pages in a variety of magazines, and so could reach audiences in a variety of programs. Advertisers could then follow the audiences rather than hope to make audiences follow them. Advertisers could likewise more easily avoid potential negative associations.

The re-integration of advertising into programming today presents similar conundrums for advertisers. How much flexibility do new forms of sponsorship provide? How risky is it to stamp a brand on a program and hope the audiences pay enough attention to absorb a positive association with the sponsor? Is program sponsorship as cost effective as discrete ads, which are mobile, repeatable, and presentable in multiple contexts? Is there still the risk of audience alienation due to advertiser control of programming?

Listening to promoters of new sponsorship forms, including some with sophisticated digital integration strategies, I wonder, nonetheless, if they will run into some of the same limitations faced by the sponsors of the past—-the radio sponsors of the 1930s & 1940s.

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