Can Branded Content Be Funny?

When Chuck did it, we laughed at them, not with them. When 30 Rock does it, or pretty much every other capital-G Good show on TV right now for that matter, we laugh at them, but with them, too. We’ve learned to take the licks, and writers have learned to give them: Product placement on TV is as knowing and wily as it is ubiquitous, and it seems to work fine. But what about the Internet?

You could make the argument that indirectly sponsored jokes deserve to be judged on their merit, not their medium. A good argument, actually! But you could make a better one – an easily demonstrable one – that this just isn’t how people act.

Among other things, it comes down to momentum. Let’s say that I don’t particularly enjoy being advertised to (I don’t), but also that I’ve also long accepted my queasy role in the exchange of Funny Things on television for my cruelly overestimated spending power (I have). I wouldn’t change the TV channel if a new show were openly Presented By Clearasil. But that same night, the video badged with “Presented by Clearasil!” would be the last one a page to get my click, if it ever did. Bam: disconnect.

They’re both written well, and they’re both paid for by third parties who want to sell me something that’s not. But something is outwardly different between the show and the video. One is long and expensive, and one is short and cheap; one is visited by a handful of companies, while the other seems dominated by a single brand. To take that a step further – and remember that we’re talking about impressions here, not so much about literal arrangements – one seems to be sold in parts, while the other can be bought whole. It’s Sponsored vs. Branded, and the rules aren’t even fair–I’d never ask if sponsored content could be funny, but for some reason feel compelled to ask this: can branded content be funny?

“It can,” says Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of CollegeHumor and CEO of IAC’s Notional. I asked Ricky because this is his business, obviously, but also because he’s done it right: Some of CollegeHumor’s most popular videos were explicitly branded.

My example, Van Veen tells me, is broken. “The key is not to forget that the comedy needs to lead the brand, not the other way around.” He doesn’t just mean that literally. Example! The newer videos in CollegeHumor’s legendary prank wars series were sponsored by Axe. One of the stars of the series, Streeter Seidell, spelled this out directly in the 7th installment, right before brutally disgracing a friend of his in front of the entire audience of a well-attended college basketball game. (Then later, over 2.5 million viewers online):

“In case you guys were wondering how I could afford to do something like this, I didn’t. What happened was, Kate in our ad sales department thought this idea was funny, and decided to make some money available. So, Axe Body Wash, you don’t know it yet, but you’ve just made a very large donation to the University of Maryland Scholarship Fund.”

The description makes Axe out to be kind of rube-ish, but at least sort of in on the joke. More importantly, Streeter – and the company he works for – is able to convey the same elusive message crafted by the best TV product placement gags: We’re on your side. We have to scrape by too, you know?

Van Veen thinks people are sympathetic to this, so long as the content is good. “The best sponsorships enable awesome things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise. If there’s some big stunt or video that’s presented by a brand, any intelligent viewer realizes that and, assuming the content’s worthwhile, would be appreciative of that.”

Even further, he says, it’s possible that viewers could be especially understanding of a sponsorship arrangement online, if only because the moneymaking features of TV that we take for granted, like the 30 second ad spots or monthly subscription bills, are conspicuously absent from our experience.

But as he intimated before, the content has to come before the brand. That is to say, someone has to laugh before they hear the pitch. If you can manage that, the most blatant plugs get a pass:

If you can’t, then the wiliest plug falls flat.

(That last one comes from DumbDumb, sponsor-driven advertising and production company led in part by Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, and made in cooperation with divisions of IAC, which owns CollegeHumor.)

The other way Internet Comedy Money Humans can make this work is to just wait it out. I was weened from watching ads at an impressionable age, when file sharing took off and actual TV consumption, at least in my peer group, plummeted straight down. One brutally short generation later, this won’t be the case. I can easily remember a time before YouTube had ads, before iTunes existed, and when people scoffed at the idea of Hulu – what’s wrong with my torrents, again? – but a kid born in 1999, well, he won’t.

John Herrman is a lovable ginger who writes about technology at Gizmodo, amongst other places.

Can Branded Content Be Funny?