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Mid-Century Modern: Advertising in Virtual Realty

The Future of VR Broadcasting Looks A Lot Like the Past

Have you ever thought about who decides what shows get on TV? I often wonder which TV programming execs greenlit Big Bang Theory, The Bachelor or any of the other insipid, cookie-cutter primetime programs that add exactly nothing to the craft of storytelling, do nothing to enrich viewers’ lives, nor anything to further the broadcast media arts and technologies.

As tempted as I am to arm an angry mob of intellectuals with lit torches at the homes of these execs…I understand why network slates are full of sub-par storytelling.

Television doesn’t exist to enrich viewers’ leisure time with inspiring and quality entertainment. TV exists to sell advertising. The “product” at any network isn’t their slate of shows, it’s the empty space in between.

This isn’t a bad thing, especially if you like your TV for free. But traditional, 30-second spot advertising is becoming less effective thanks to TiVo and second screens (i.e. your cellphone screen that hooks your attention at every commercial break or boring part of the show). As a result, brands are shifting their ad budgets into alternate broadcast markets like YouTube and VOD (video on demand) platforms, like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

The next market for advertisers resides on the emerging broadcast networks in the metaverse. VR is the most powerful storytelling medium ever created, and it affords the ability to manipulate emotions like never seen before, which is exactly what the best advertising does or at least aims to do. Ergo, VR and advertising are a match made in heaven, destined to breathe more bandwidth and revenue into the market.

Yet somehow, so many VR platforms have launched (or are launching) with little or no provision for VR ads. This is actually great for advertisers. Here’s why…

In the 1950s, when television was the nascent wonder-medium first gaining traction, AFP (advertiser funded programming) was the predominant monetization paradigm for broadcasters. Like their radio counterparts, early television shows were “brought to you by” top consumer brands. AFP lasted decades, even after 30-second commercials came into play. Side note: AFP is how soap operas got their moniker. These daytime, serial, scripted dramas were all sponsored by soap companies. The arrangement was so lucrative for Procter & Gamble, they established their own TV and film production studio.

But will today’s viewers find the oldy-timey phrases “brought to you by” or “and now a word from our sponsor” as persuasive as a 30-second hard sell?

Yes. Ask anyone over 45 their feelings about Mutual of Omaha, a Midwestern insurance company that anyone younger than 45 has likely never heard of. The words “Mutual of Omaha” not only yields positive associations, but also inspires fond memories and enthusiastic conversations about The Wild Kingdom or Marlin Perkins, the mustachioed, silver-haired host of Mutual of Omaha’s wildly popular nature program.

It didn’t matter that the connection between this mid-sized insurance company and a wild animal program was tenuous, for Mutual of Omaha the investment in Wild Kingdom was a genius media buy. The prominent branding and the positive association from sponsorship yielded an incalculably favorable ROI. It’s nothing less than an advertising triumph that a mild-mannered nature program which has been out of pop culture and off the air for 28 years, still resonates positively with a significant (and moneyed) demographic.

The greatest benefit to the Mutual of Omaha brand was the direct association with the pro social themes espoused by Wild Kingdom. Millions of viewers learned about wildlife conservation, animal behavior, world geography, and the value in studying nature. Insurance was never mentioned in the plotlines. But an episode of Wild Kingdom left all viewers smarter and entertained, thanks to the fine folks at Mutual of Omaha.

Savvy brands are already starting to develop short and long-form branded VR content. And the smartest brands are actively looking for quality VR content to sponsor, to place products in or for promising VR creators to support. The brands that take the leap of faith into VR sooner rather than later and divert significant ad dollars into the metaverse are the ones who are going to win big.

Why? Because of today’s video-on-demand delivery, the distribution potential for AFP is exponentially greater. Any quality sponsored content broadcast in VR now, is eligible to benefit from an early adopter “classics” status, à la I Love Lucy (originally sponsored by Philip Morris and in heavy syndication for over 50 years) or take pole position for super long running episodic content like the The Today Show (started in 1952) or General Hospital (started in 1963). The goal for any digital savvy brand today is to find or create the modern-day VR equivalent, so your brand lives forever.

Likewise, compelling, evergreen VR content doesn’t have to fight for a limited number of time slots or agree to exclusivity on one network. (There are currently five VR broadcasters and nothing prohibiting content from residing on more than one).

Also, VR audiences are captive audiences. There is no room for a second screen (nor any distraction from the outside world) whilst wearing a VR head-mounted display. Intended messages come through loud and clear.

However, two elements from the VR ecosystem are still, unfortunately, scarce:

1. High production value VR content that promulgates pro social values which attract and align with established brands. (“Zombie Death in Space” might be the top rated VR narrative this month, but Walmart isn’t going to sponsor the rest of the trilogy).

2. Viewer numbers that rival network TV or VOD audiences won’t be there for another year or two, as VR headsets decrease in price and increase in sophistication.

In the broadcast television world, pretty much any vapid sitcom broadcast at 8pm, Thursday on ABC, NBC or CBS will automatically attract 20 million or more viewers and generate millions in advertising revenue for the network (see: Friends, Big Bang Theory). VR will shortly be able to generate the audience numbers Friends had, and VR broadcast platforms will certainly be looking to exploit this revenue stream. But for now, no one is charging for “airtime.” In fact, the biggest VR distribution platform doesn’t yet have standards for sponsored content or product placements.

For marketing directors and ad agencies that have kindly read this far….you read that right. No network gatekeepers and no media buy required.

While parts of the VR broadcast ecosystem are still ripening, the most valuable part for any advertiser is just about to bloom: metrics. In the metaverse, brands don’t have to guess or rely on self-reported surveys to gauge emotional reaction to branding and message. Soon to hit the market are VR headsets measure gaze, micro expressions, biometrics, and tracks immediate and over-time purchasing behavior.

VR industry players — from content studios, software and hardware manufacturers, to investors — have been saying it’s Go Time for the last year, but the gold rush hasn’t really started. Considering the holding pattern that VR is currently in, a hefty dose of advertising dollars to sponsor content is the perfect spark to jump start this media revolution.

Which is exactly how television took off in the 1950s. The broadcast, infrastructure, hardware and creative content was there. And despite small audiences, brave consumer brands took a leap of faith in a new medium and these early adopters reaped the biggest benefits.

But this time around, let’s not insult viewers with subpar programming. Because if broadcast media programming isn’t drastically changed, another generation is going to grow up thinking this is the way entertainment has to be, or worse yet, how it should be. The VR revolution is the perfect opportunity to break the banal-TV-show mold and start fresh with content that truly adds value and supports — not erodes — our humanity.


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