TORONTO — Viewers who stumble across the Canadian YouTube series “Upstairs Amy” might not realize it at first, but the comic foibles of its working-mom star are actually part of an elaborately constructed advertisement.
Not until three-and-a-half minutes into the show does Walmart Canada and payment transaction company Interac reveal they’re behind each episode. By then, audiences have already become acquainted with Amy’s adventurous lifestyle and the fabulous party hosted in her friend’s apartment.
“Upstairs Amy” is one of the latest experiments in “branded web content” made by Shaftesbury, the Toronto production house behind TV hits like “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Frankie Drake Mysteries.” While the show is packed with sequences familiar to sitcom audiences, there are also a number of subtle advertising cues that aren’t obvious at first glance.
For example, Amy’s kitchen is stocked with appliances from one particular sponsor, while a memorable scene revolves around a hunky Walmart delivery man who shows up at Amy’s door with her web order.
Each episode closes with a reminder that “Upstairs Amy” is financed by two corporate interests, but as far as its creators are concerned, this project is entertainment first and marketing second.
“Really all we’re doing is reinventing the idea of the soap opera,” said Kaaren Whitney-Vernon, senior vice president of branded entertainment at Shaftesbury.
“People are so tired of being advertised to, they’re blocking it as much as they can.”
While only a few Canadian brands have dabbled in branded web series, some predict more companies will consider sponsored programming in the hopes of rising above the clutter of traditional commercials.
Years ago, brands would’ve paid big bucks to sneak their logos into network TV series. “American Idol” hosts chugged beverages from Coca-Cola glasses, while Tim Hortons paid for placement on series including “Arrested Development” and “Homeland.” Rachel famously obsessed over Pottery Barn for an entire episode of “Friends.”
A Nielsen study released last fall suggests those branded moments are falling out of favour. Placements dropped four per cent in the 2016-17 TV season, after already tumbling eight per cent a year earlier.
Whitney-Vernon wants more companies to think beyond fleeting product placements and 30-second spots to customer relationships that build through an entire storyline.
“Upstairs Amy,” which began last November, runs for 20 episodes and is being promoted through Facebook and by social media influencers who make cameo appearances on the series.
A branded web series is typically deemed a success if enough viewers interact with and share the content on blogs and within their social media circles.
While Shaftesbury says production costs are “significantly less” than a traditional TV and print campaign, the risk and reward equation gets a tepid response from some marketing executives.
“While we might be getting a bit more attention, it’s still a struggle for brands to understand,” Whitney-Vernon said. “It’s a little bit of a new frontier.”
One success story has given the branded web series some leverage in corporate board rooms.
Shaftesbury’s vampire YouTube series “Carmilla” struck a chord with teenagers, giving its feminine hygiene sponsor Kotex a boost of goodwill with young shoppers. After three seasons, “Carmilla” was turned into a feature film that briefly played in theatres.
But there’s also “V Morgan is Dead,” a short-lived series funded by Royal Bank, which followed a young woman who dies suddenly and is offered a second chance at life if she first helps others.
Royal Bank launched the series by talking about how it used brain-scanning technology to learn that millennials responded negatively to financial talk incorporated into storylines. So instead, the series attempted to broadly appeal to young viewers’ interests. “V Morgan is Dead” ran for 20 episodes two years ago but wasn’t renewed for another season.
Other looming changes in the digital world could also challenge the growth of branded web series. Facebook recently announced plans to redesign its News Feed and lower the priority of sponsored posts, which means fewer people will likely see branded videos.
Jonathan Hirsh, executive producer at Floating Island Entertainment, was hopeful a few months ago that Facebook would offer a gateway for the zany comedy series “Fare Trade” to find even more viewers. The show was launched by Bunz, a Toronto-based online trading platform, and followed a group of actors playing Bunz members who get stuck in unusual situations.
“This is the way of the future,” Hirsh said before Facebook revealed its changes.
“Fare Trade” ultimately found most of its viewers through the Bunz website, where a thriving community of users already exists.
Eli Klein, community manager at Bunz, said the series was intended to drive more conversations among its tight-knit web forums. While he acknowledges it’s hard to quantify whether the show had any tangible impact on new customers, he still considers it a success.
Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner at corporate strategy firm Provident Communications, is skeptical about whether branded web series truly offer much promise for marketers.
He said only the highest quality TV series can stand out in this cluttered media environment, which makes selling the concept to viewers even more difficult when it’s coming from a corporate interest.
“When I hear that a brand is putting out a themed web series driven by product … every red flag just goes up,” Dabrowski said.
“Nobody wants to watch marketing collateral masquerading as video content they’re supposed to find interesting.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press