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P&G moves away from ads and toward TV shows that go way beyond product placement

Singer Becky G appears on episode one of 'Activate,' a series sponsored by Procter & Gamble
National Geographic

Procter & Gamble has unveiled its latest marketing move, featuring multiple brands and a TV show. But this isn't traditional product placement — far from it.

The consumer goods company, whose products include Pantene shampoo and Charmin toilet paper, is one of the world's largest advertisers, spending $6.75 billion on advertising in its 2019 financial year.

However, its Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard is intent on moving away from "annoying" ads and toward funding shows and other types of content that are "creative" rather than cluttering.

It's funding a new show on National Geographic called "Activate," a six-part season focusing on extreme poverty, inequality and sustainability, produced with not-for-profit Global Citizen and production company Radical Media.

Celebrities such as singer Becky G and actor Hugh Jackman are shown working on Global Citizen initiatives, while P&G highlights its efforts such as donations of Always sanitary towels to schools in African countries, or its Tide "Loads of Hope" initiative, where it launders clothes free of charge for those affected by extreme weather, such as the Ohio tornadoes in May.

It's a way of getting P&G's brands out there and part of a move toward "creative partnerships," where the company aims to have an editorial rather than a purely promotional tone in its marketing.

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"This is part of our effort to reinvent advertising from mass clutter with too many annoying messages, to useful and interesting brand content consumers actually look forward to," Pritchard told CNBC by email. The company did not disclose marketing spending for the National Geographic sponsorship but said it had launched more than 30 creative programs in the past year.

It's also a means of reaching younger consumers who are turning away from traditional media and traditional advertising, Pritchard added. "Many consumers think ads are annoying and more than 70% of Gen Z and millennials are viewing content with no ads at all," he said.

The TV show will start Thursday, and is accompanied by online articles, including one promoting Charmin and pushing its green credentials. Asked whether P&G's involvement in the show is a commercial ploy to sell more products, Pritchard said: "Nine of 10 consumers say they have a more positive image of a brand when it supports a societal cause, and half say they make purchase decisions based on shared beliefs with a brand."

Ad-funded programming is not new to P&G. It was one of the first companies to sponsor daytime radio dramas, advertising its products to housewives in the 1930s and helping to give rise to the term "soap opera."