Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Intersection Between Branded Content And News Bites ESPN

The quality of human interest journalism which ESPN has produced over the years has caused tough guy sports fans to curl up on their couches weeping like 46-year-old mothers watching "Good Morning America." Specific segments such as a montage of soldiers coming back home to their families during sporting events and the story of two bonding wrestlers have been praised for their heartwarming themes which help viewers appreciate life.

As David Lloyd introduced an inspirational story featuring top football prospect Teddy Bridgewater during an afternoon edition of "SportsCenter," I prepared myself emotionally for what could possibly be another tearjerker. The introduction set up the story to have all the inner workings of a classic Chris Connelly "My Wish" piece except there was one big difference. This piece was produced by Spike Lee and Cadillac, not an ESPN news team.

"Spike Lee (and his company Spike DDB) has been a partner with us; of course his storytelling is completely unique. We were in a position to put the pieces together, and were pleased to do so," said David Caldwell, a spokesman for Cadillac. 

During the segment which turned out to be a mini-documentary, a graphic which read "Cadillac" to symbolize a courtesy was displayed on the top left corner of the screen. But other than that, no mention was made to viewers that they had technically just watched what is widely known as branded content, the "fusion" between entertainment and advertising. 


Whether "SportsCenter" should be airing branded content or not is another story for another day but I was surprised that there was no mention during the introduction or after the story concluded of the kind of role Cadillac played in the video besides the graphic which was shown. 

This isn't the first time "SportsCenter" has indulged in this practice but it usually makes it's intentions explicit. For example, to promote the release of NBA 2K, 2K Sports interviewed Michael Jordan and sent the exclusive video to ESPN before it was released on 2K Sports' YouTube page. Jay Crawford, a "SportsCenter" anchor, made it clear that the interview was part of promotion for the videogame

It is unclear whether this instance of branded content was added to the show after ESPN noticed how trendy the story became online or if it was an intentionally planned segment which ESPN would help become a trend. Some clues would lead to the ladder assumption.

  • Whenever ESPN pulls video from another source unaffiliated with their empire, a tweet is sent out through the @ESPNAssignDesk account asking for permission to use the content during its telecasts. There are no tweets from the day before the story was released or the day of (May 6th) from @ESPNAssignDesk asking Cadillac for permission to use this video. In the past, other companies such as Gatorade have been asked by ESPN through this account for permission to use their branded content on air.

When asked for comment, both PR teams from ABC News and ESPN had no recollection of the segment. 

If Cadillac purposely partnered with Disney's television outlets, they chose the right group to release this story to the masses because of "GMA" and Roberts' connection to overcoming cancer as well as "SportsCenter"'s place as the number one sports news show on television. The combination of "GMA" and "SportsCenter" exposure helped solidify this video to over 400,000 views on YouTube.

Despite my theory though, Cadillac says that they had no control over the selection of where their branded content aired other than their YouTube page.

"If we could do such things, we’d be on those outlets all the time, right?  We commissioned the video, and got involved on the car side of things. That’s about it," Caldwell said. "Airing on media outlets in full or in part is not something we compel, select, or control at all. At best we can make things available."

Separately, Cadillac has a deal with a college sports news website known as Campus Insiders to sponsor their shows and produce stories involving the intersection between college sports and their products. Through this deal, Campus Insiders was able to post the mini-documentary on their website which raised awareness about the story even further. In their posting, Campus Insiders says that the video is presented by Cadillac through the title but you have to look deeper in the site to find out the full extent of Cadillac's role in the video.

The Miami Herald recently confirmed that this mini-documentary was essentially a commercial for Cadillac (and not a news story as it was presented to look like on SportsCenter) after interviewing Spike Lee:

Lee, whose advertising agency Spike DDB "is the African American agency of record for Cadillac," was approached by Cadillac to tell Bridgewater's story. He said he came to Miami two weeks ago to begin filming Bridgewater and his family.
"It was a natural fit when they heard the story of Teddy promising his mother a Cadillac when he was 9 and at the time not even knowing the significance of the color pink," Lee said. "Everything clicked and it came together very quickly, even though we didn't go home until 4 a.m. [Tuesday] because we had to edit, mix and color correct.

If you were a viewer watching at home, the likelihood that these ethical aspects mattered to you is slim to none. Spike Lee did a tremendous job capturing the essence of Bridgewater's wish for his mother in the 3rd grade. But did ESPN and Campus Insiders make enough of an effort to make sure viewers were able to distinguish this branded content from a straight news story? Should there have been a verbal disclaimer even though this story was extremely softcore? 

It's very likely that no money was exchanged between Disney and Cadillac to air this story during "SportsCenter" and "GMA," but if any agreement was made to air this mini-doc as just another news story during either broadcast, I believe the viewers deserve to be made aware of what they're watching in order to uphold journalistic ethics. 

Even if there was no agreement and ESPN just chose to air the piece because they wanted to, a subtle but simple verbal notification shows that you have an esteemed value for your consumer and that you don't want to misconstrue any images which you're portraying to them. 

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