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Goodbye advertising, hello branded content: Comedy Central looks to new ad formats

Wouldn't it be great if commercials were as good as the TV shows they interrupt?

With digital marketing budgets forecast to overtake TV ad spending in the U.S., broadcasters are under greater pressure to do more to entertain viewers and keep their audiences. At the same time, the rise of digital ad blockers suggests that people are tiring of some branded messages, a problem both for content publishers and brands.

But now broadcasters are piloting new ways to reach people, in the next evolution of branded content. In an effort to keep both TV and online audiences happy, Viacom's Comedy Central channel is now running two-and-a-half minute branded content spots once a month, instead of a series of shorter ads.

It has started with a series called Handy, "a behind-the-scenes comedic look into the grueling, high-stress and absurd world of professional male hand modeling," as described on the Handy the Series website.

Comedy Centrals' Handy series features a hand model
Comedy Centrals' Handy series features a hand model

Each episode sees hand model Erik Thomas Layne (played by actor Erich Lane) cast in an advert with a comedic twist. A spot for jewelry brand Zales shows him lose a diamond ring on a sandy beach, while in an episode featuring Joe's Crab Shack he is unable to crack a crab leg.

Full episodes are shown on the Handy the Series website, with cut-downs shown on Comedy Central's TV channel during advertising slots. Comedy Central is also working with Pepsi, Miller, Pringles and McDonald's on the franchise.

Blending TV and social media

"Our team (Viacom Velocity) has been developing new branded content franchises for Comedy Central, and as we've expanded into longer formats, we wanted to bring the content to our linear [TV] screen for fans so that they can experience it as they would through our social touchpoints," Chris Ficarra, executive vice president of integrated marketing, Viacom Velocity, told CNBC.com via email.

"Our goal is to produce premium branded content that will keep viewers engaged on air and will compel them to share socially."

Making sure the content is entertaining is a key part of its success, Ficarra added.

"We do a ton of research on our fans and know they don't mind being marketed to as long as the content is entertaining, so that informs our approach: let's make them laugh."

Erich Lane in Comedy Central's Handy series, in a spot featuring jeweler Zales
Erich Lane in Comedy Central's Handy series, in a spot featuring jeweler Zales

Shows such as this go some way to tackle the negativity sometimes directed at advertising, said Steve Ackerman, managing director of content agency Somethin' Else. "This attempts to address the problem of how brands can be the 'thing' people want to watch, rather than the 'thing' that gets in the way of what you want to watch," he told CNBC.com via email.

"However, this approach still only offers something more relevant, but still not the 'thing' that audiences have tuned in to watch," he added.

Ackerman suggests the next iteration in branded content may be when an advertiser creates an entire series, and runs them on its own channels, as Foster's lager did in 2011 when it ran a comedy show on YouTube called "Mid Morning Matters," with comedian Steve Coogan's socially challenged alter ego Alan Partridge.

Asked whether branded content spots will ever replace advertising, Viacom's Ficarra said: "We want to continue to deliver content beyond 30 and 60 [-second advertising] increments to our fans on all screens. It gives us and our clients more time to tell the story and engage the fans.

"Viacom Velocity has developed 30-minute specials for clients and continues to explore opportunities like that for the right partners. Many of our clients are getting into the long-form content space to engage fans, and we love the opportunity to have these conversations."

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