DuPont is a chemical industry conglomerate headquartered in the United States. It has its fingers in everything from agriculture to materials to electronics. It started a pioneering collaboration with BBC World News a few years ago when Horizons first aired. It is a BBC produced show about global sustainability challenges. It raises wider questions about ethics in journalism.
Of course it’s nothing new: cash-strapped broadcasters and advertisers have heeded the advice of marketers to explore branded entertainment in an attempt to leave traditional 30-second adverts behind.
In an age where people consume content differently, the power of such one-way communication with your potential customer is vastly reduced. Every major company with an advertising budget is now doing stuff that evades traditional forms of advertising, be it social media or branded entertainment.
Being mainly a B2B player, DuPont had previously not bothered much about advertising at all. With the advent of a new corporate communications director, this was about to change. The idea was that as a company with a large horizontal footprint, DuPont’s success is intrinsically about collaboration – with the outside world and inside the company gates.
Major ad agency WPP took on the DuPont gig via its subsidiary Ogilvy. Fitting with DuPont’s growing focus on the “sustainability industries”, a TV show was conceived which would explore the challenges the world faces as a result of population growth and also how some of them may be faced through innovative companies and collaboration between them.
Companies that are profiled during the show are often ones that DuPont has been working together with around the world. Related two-minute advertising spots more directly about DuPont’s activities are aired at about half-time. The BBC produces the show through contractor Goodness Media.
While it is publicly stated that with the show the company merely wants to increase/showcase its thought leadership versus it being solely about advertising, WPP’s own documents describe the motivations a bit more candidly:
[…] DuPont’s sponsorship and involvement in the Horizons television broadcast on the BBC World News is largely meant to drive brand awareness and perception, but the short-form, more commercial elements of the program are intended to drive customers closer toward action.
Otto Bell of Ogilvy says that Horizons is the perfect storm of content and marketing messaging.
Is BBC World News thus selling out in airing corporate campaign footage branded as BBC productions? Is it accepting handouts from a big corporate bent on white-washing its heavy industry image?
I don’t think it’s that easy.
The Collaboratory as a campaign and Horizons as a TV show are clever, the latter being engaging television at its best. The episode on urban farming aired this weekend was very good I thought.
I find two things slightly questionable though:
For one, the two-minute intermezzo clips are long and bend the usual frame allotted to adverts quite considerably. Their documentary style makes it at times hard to understand that it’s an advert you’re watching, not part of the same BBC produced content. The fact that these adverts are related to the topic discussed in the specific Horizon episode makes the boundaries between the show and the clip blurry. It also makes me wonder how much coordination between DuPont and the producer of the show, Goodness Media, really took place.
The second problem I have is more fundamental. Horizons is a very popular programme on questions of sustainability and the future of this planet. It is not just a business report on Bloomberg TV that is sponsored by a spreadbetting company. Does the BBC really need a sponsor for a show like this if it is serious about its reputation as the flagship of British journalism excellence?
In the words of Peter Horrocks, BBC Global News Director:
BBC World News is one of the BBC’s and Britain’s most important cultural exports. Whenever someone turns on the channel round the world they should see the finest journalism, which inspires respect for the BBC’s fairness and independence.
Yes, this finest journalism can be expensive. Flying two film teams around the world is going to cost you and without the sponsorship deal, this would perhaps not be possible for BBC World News. And as long as you don’t have these new ways of branded entertainment infiltrate the fee-funded parts of the BBC, then – ethically – we can perhaps all live with it.
However, this is no isolated case. It’s “the rise of the advertorial”. With it, we should become more careful to allow viewers to better understand what is editorially independent content and what isn’t (I would argue Horizons falls slightly in the latter category).
Hence I would welcome a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that DuPont has / has not influenced the content of the show. A clearer delineation of the mid-advert would be good too.
News stations are not utilities and it’s perfectly OK for their ambition to be to make and spend big money, a fact very visible from the BBC World News’s new multimillion pound newsroom or, more widely, remuneration packages for news program’s star talking heads around the world, especially in the US.
But it’s up to the viewer to decide whether s/he wants to view an array of corporate communications features camouflaged as or uncritically side-by-side with reputable journalism.
Speaking of the US, it is perhaps not surprising that it’s here where we may want to look in order to understand where journalism is headed. Take CNN for example, which makes solid profits on growing revenues.
Its spending on quality independent journalism is becoming less and less. The Atlanta-based network closed its investigative journalism unit recently. The Daily Show ran its humorous take on the story:
Of course quality journalism continues to exist. Yet to see real innovation take place you increasingly need to look for it in niche markets, such as the one funded by crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. It has to date facilitated funding for various innovative ideas in the field.