Conventional wisdom has long held that the best kind of ad is the one you don’t realize is an ad. It sidles up alongside you, doesn’t come on too strong, and leaves its message deeply embedded within some other context—a whisper instead of a shout. Of course, this strategy made a lot more sense back before ads became ubiquitous and everyone became aware of product placement and sponsored content. In order for these kinds of ads to work in the age of transparency, they have to reflect the viewer’s awareness right back at them. It also helps if they’re hysterically funny.
"The thing we tried to do is not do it subtly, but not make the ad so much of an ad that the show wasn’t entertaining anymore," says Scott Aukerman. As the creator of Comedy Bang! Bang!, an IFC sketch show masquerading as a talk show, Aukerman has overseen two brand integrations, spread out across two seasons; prime examples of seamless native advertising. The reason these ads manage to be welcome additions to the proceedings is because not only are they above-board, they're also in keeping with the spirit and style of the show they help make possible.
One of the keys to comedy is specificity. If the punchline of a joke involves a steak, it’s much funnier if it’s a porterhouse. Of course, the logical extension of specificity in comedic nouns is the use of brand names, which allows endless opportunities for product placement in movies that aim to make you laugh. Unlike action movie integrations, which often demonstrate just how clutch a certain product can be, comedic ones tend to subtly denigrate the brand—as if distancing the act from advertising while still doing just that.
The modern era of self-referential product placement dates back at least 22 years to Wayne’s World. In a memorable scene, the stars of that film’s show-within-a-show chafe at the idea of having to shill for products on-air. In doing so, though, they "inadvertently" advertise several major brands. Integrations like this one opened a rich vein, paving the way for other movies and shows to employ product placement while simultaneously satirizing the very concept of product placement.
Before creating these same type of self-referential ads for Volkswagen and Cheez-It on his TV show, both of which are funnier without description and can be seen in the sidebars below, Scott Aukerman tested the waters online. In an episode of Between Two Ferns, the popular webseries Aukerman cocreated, a flustered Zach Galifianakis applies a tube of Speed Stick deodorant on-air. Afterwards, he mumbles the words, "Product placement," possibly as both apology and narration.
"Obviously the dance between advertisers and artists is always a difficult one to really figure out," Aukerman says. "With the Between Two Ferns videos we did, people either thought the ad parts were fake or that we were making fun of brand integrations, or they didn’t mind it because we were being funny about it. So that made me feel okay about trying it on TV. Comedy Bang! Bang! is kind of a fake talk show anyway, and talk shows, ever since TV was invented, have been doing brand integrations."
In order to make these bits come together, IFC’s brand marketing unit has to work directly with the show creators—while still giving them autonomy. Marketing heads brief the Comedy Bang! Bang! writers room on an ad partnership opportunity, and then the writers come up with broad concepts for IFC to take back to the advertiser. After the idea passes muster, the creators continue to refine it like they would a typical sketch.
"What the advertiser typically wants to do is what works best for the show," says Blake Callaway, IFC's senior vice president of brand marketing. "They don’t want to stand out as non-creative product integration. They want to be seemingly part of the story and part of the show."
Today’s audiences are less naïve about how advertising works than previous generations. They know the line between advertising and content is blurry, and they like to think they can tell which is which. The native ads on Comedy Bang! Bang! reward savvy viewers for watching Mad Men, and not clicking on banner ads, by being up-front about what they're doing—and doing it in a style that's just as weird and meta as the rest of the show.
Watch the two examples below, with further commentary from Scott Aukerman, to see for yourself whether they succeed.
"We found early in the first season that the show needed a fake brand in order for us to do several ideas. We thought something like 'Sullivans' would be funny, because it’s so innocuous, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just so bland. So we made it our go-to bland brand name.
It took us about a day to crack the Volkswagen idea, to really figure it out. I left in the middle of the day, after presenting the writers with the challenge that we have to present this in a way that is entertaining because it's going to take up two to three minutes of screen time and there can’t just be an ad there. When I came back in the morning, they had this kind of perfect script that satirized brand integrations while still being one.
The ad people we’ve worked with have been really good about knowing that it has to be entertaining first. When we turned in the VW script, I think the writers and I got a little nervous that they wouldn’t think we weren't being respectful enough to the brand or advertising it enough. But they were just thrilled and they approved the script as is. I think there was some talk about the wording of some things, but as far as the big ideas, and comedic take on it, they were on board right away."
"We had a couple ideas last year that we were going to put fake brands into anyway, and the Cheez-It one ended up taking the place of one of those. We were really into the idea of the musical episode breaking out into song in the middle of a commercial because the basic premise that we were working with was ‘this is every part of a talk show made into a musical.’ So the opening monologue would be a musical, the banter between [co-host] Reggie [Watts] and I would be a musical, the interview would be a musical. Then that naturally lead us to, "We should have a brand-integrated commercial that’s also a musical."
So it was definitely an idea that we had been laughing about, all the while knowing that Cheez-It was interested in doing something. It was an idea that we would have done anyway with a fake brand, and Cheez-It wisely took advantage of it and had us do a real brand—which, to me, works even better. And I think that’s a testament to it, that it’s a lot of people’s favorite part of that episode. It’s such a great song, and Casey Wilson gives such an amazing performance that, advertisement or not, people really love that part of the episode."
Comedy Bang! Bang! airs Fridays at 10PM on IFC.