"You know that there will be people crying?" said Hannah Jones, a digital communications manager at the ad firm Leo Burnett. Wael Hatter, head of Core Branded Entertainment, was unmoved. "We want them to die," he said. "Or, not to die. But the project has ended." In a glazed meeting-room in Dubai Media City, the fates of Hiroshi and Osamu would be sealed; that much was clear. Yet the question of who, or perhaps what, they were was harder to answer now than it would have been a year ago.
They started life in the summer of 2009, created by Leo Burnett as mascots for Chevrolet. Advertising, it is frequently noted, trades in stereotypes. The stereotype in this case was the bumbling east-Asian goon, unashamedly in the tradition of Cato from the Pink Panther films. The duo was sent, so the story goes, by a car manufacturer not unlike Toyota to spy on Chevrolet's Middle East operation. This they did in a series of popular television adverts, sneaking into Chevrolet showrooms to conduct outlandish tests involving batteries of megaphones and inflatable sumo suits, before video-phoning their findings back to a shadowy superior. Their transmissions were crammed with kitsch Japanese references: karaoke skits and satin superhero costumes, toy robot dinosaurs and other otaku paraphernalia.
The ads were a hit. The Mena-region marketing press toasted them both as a feint at laws banning competitive advertising (those digs at Toyota) and as a welcome injection of fun into a drab market. It might seem odd to those who grew up outside the Gulf that a decent-sized family car should be promoted in such madcap style. But of course, in these prosperous parts the Cruze is frequently a first car. And once Hiroshi and Osamu had engaged the Facebook-savvy youth audience, Core, a division of Publicis devoted to what's called branded content, was ready to join the team.
"We told them that the characters were really good and rich," Wael Hattar told me without detectable irony, "and we should develop them as personalities and have their mini-adventures." His team took the heroes online, in particular running their Facebook page. They expected around 6,000 people to sign up. Nearly 30,000 did. "All of that happened," says Hattar, "because we were entertaining ourselves and the viewers." So they kept doing that.
They filmed a sequence of comedy shorts which MBC, the Middle East's most powerful broadcaster, hosted online. They shot a broadcast special, which MBC showed on TV. By this stage in the narrative the spies had gone rogue, fleeing across the Middle East pursued by their employer's minion. To expand on these adventures, Core created comic books which they distributed free with a number of Saudi newspapers. The most conservative of these insisted that the characters should be depicted with beards, so as to establish definitively that they were male. Core, young and fashionable operation that it is, gave them stubble.
Hiroshi and Osamu started appearing on Saudi radio - again with MBC. "Every day you'd have the word of the day in Japanese and people would learn it," Hattar explained. This is what advertisers call 360-degree presence: online and in newspapers, on the radio and the television, occupying ad space but at the same time infiltrating the scheduled programming, all the while trying to effect the transition from being something people avoid to something they value and care about.
And care they did. A perusal of the Hiroshi and Osamu Facebook comments thread reveals at least one super-fan - "a super-scary fan," as a Leo Burnett staffer put it - who offered the pair asylum in the KSA, as well as her hand in marriage. "I was touched," said Core's Muna Abudayyeh, who happened to be impersonating the characters at the time. Still, the messages had to stop. Chevrolet advertising had moved on; Hiroshi and Osamu had outlived their usefulness. The problem was, how to let the fans down gently while herding a decent number of them over to Chevrolet's own web pages? As Hattar said, "we want it to end on a positive". It's an open question which would have been the biggest downer: doing away with the spies or delivering that last buzzkill of a sales message. This ambiguity of purpose permeates the whole field of branded content. Nevertheless - or perhaps because of that fact - it now seems possible that the antics of rogue mascots like the Chevrolet duo could spur the Middle East's media landscape out of a long creative stagnation.
Branded content, which ranges from the humble product placement all the way up to the majestic advertiser-funded TV series, is still a minor concern in the region's media ecology. Core, set up two years ago, is one of the three main proponents in the region. The others are Mindshare and Fuse. The contrast with the West is striking. Product placement is endemic in Hollywood blockbusters, to the extent that Christopher Nolan's recent film Inception drew bewildered comment in the marketing press because it didn't feature very much of it: just a few clear shots of a Mercedes badge and some recognisable makes of firearm. At the same time, advertiser-driven game-shows - Fremantle Media's "Got Talent" stable of programmes, for instance - have long ruled the TV schedules in Britain and the United States.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Media companies were casting around for new sources of funding to shore up their business models against the financial crisis and the rise of internet piracy. Meanwhile brands had grown to doubt the reach of traditional commercials, which the viewers themselves were learning to avoid, through ad-blocking software, TiVo and similar measures. The solution was obvious: just turn the content that they actually do want to watch into a form of advertising.
This idea is hardly novel. After all, the soap opera was originally devised to promote Procter & Gamble products. What's different is the scale. This year Procter & Gamble teamed up with Walmart and the American broadcaster NBC to make a series of made-for-television movies, family-oriented adventures called things like "Secrets of the Mountain". They were modest hits by the standards of ordinary prime-time programming, peaking at around seven million viewers. As case studies for successful branded entertainment, however, they showed the way to mass audiences, measurable sales and active fan-bases.
If the same strategies are relatively undeveloped in the Arab world, one might be tempted to feel thankful. What consumer would want their media to better serve commercial interests, or hope to be exposed to subtler, more insinuating brand messages? Yet if branded content is in its infancy here, so too is media itself, at least in certain respects. "There are very few channels that are commercially viable," Amjad Tadros, the CEO of ShooFeeTV, the Middle East's most comprehensive TV guide. "At the end of the day you need money to create content. You can't make content out of nothing." ShooFeeTV's content manager said that nearly 50 per cent of programming on the region's top eight channels was bought in. So the question arises: are media inhibiting the growth of innovative advertising, or is it the other way around?
"You have to understand that there's a problem in the Middle East when it comes to traditional multinationals," said Tim Smythe, the head of the Dubai- based film production company Filmworks. "If I for example got a programme that was completely funded by a multinational, I still couldn't get it on TV unless that multinational certified to the media agencies that it would not reduce its media spend, which is a catch-22 and one of the main reasons you see so little branded content." Smythe, incidentally, co-produced Ali Mostafa's City of Life, the first feature film with international prospects to emerge from the Emirates. The film was largely paid for through brand placements, for instance for Dubai Airport Duty Free.
It happened that Filmworks was working on a TV series with openings for product placement when Smythe and I spoke. "You're not talking the standard product placement of the Coca-Colas or Pepsis or so forth," he said. "We're talking more the big institutions - the Etihads, the Emirates, that level." This is to be expected. Quite apart from the difficulties of winning over MBC, big multinational corporations generally have little to gain by tailoring their brand profile country by country when they can simply insert their messages into, for example, Hollywood films and have a reasonable expectation that they will travel around the world.
Meanwhile, for those brands which do want to secure a foothold specifically in the Middle East, there's only really one game in town: MBC, the media giant that commands the vast majority of the Middle East's television viewership (recall the broadcaster's presence throughout the adventures of Hiroshi and Osamu). "How many channels do you have in the UAE?," Elie Haber, the managing director of the advertising agency Mindshare said. "Around 400 [this may be rather a low estimate]. The group MBC represents around 85 per cent of the total audience. If you look at MBC2 they are all movies. What kind of branded content can you do with this? Nothing. What can you do with MBC 4? They have Turkish series. They have opera. They have all this stuff. Also nothing. The only channel left for you to do some kind of branded content is MBC1."
This means that there is a bottleneck between advertisers and audiences. The corollary is that favoured agencies have been able to exploit the narrowness of this window by effectively charging advertisers for access. At The National'sIndustry Insights panel discussion on advertising back in July there were dark remarks about the scale of these surcharges, and also their murkiness. As Mazen Hayek, MBC's group director of PR and commercial, admitted during the panel, transparency "simply does not exist" in this market.
For its part, MBC is eager to increase its ratio of branded content in its revenue stream. Hayek told me his ideal split would be somewhere between 70-30 and 60-40. At present, he estimated, 90 per cent of MBC's earnings came from traditional forms of advertising. Adjusting the balance would mean "a lot of changes, and it takes not just MBC to change. But you know, non-conventional [that is, branded content] requires greater effort. It requires budgeting processes and planning processes at the client side. It requires brands to be closer to producers and to story-line writers." This is all to say, it means incorporating advertisers into the creative process - even, in certain cases, accepting programme pitches from them.
Complicating the picture is the fact that MBC has its own brand to consider. As Elie Haber noted: "Take any programme which is delivering zero ratings on another channel, put it on MBC1 and it will deliver higher ratings." For Hayek the challenge is to extend MBC's relations with advertisers without losing its all-conquering appeal to audiences. "Remember, there are always fine lines between the TV content and the commercial content," he said. "Our commitment is first and foremost to the consumer, to the viewer."
Such affirmations might sound rather hollow were it not that, by their nature, branded entertainments do have to win people over in a way that traditional adverts don't. In practice this means the branding component can be rather minimal. Wael Hattar worked on a healthcare segment for the Lebanese edition of the Green Apple magazine show (airing on MBC, naturally). The item was called Life Without Pain and the sponsor was the painkiller brand Panadol. It happens that Lebanese law prohibits drugs advertising on television. "We couldn't even use the brand, the logo," Hattar recalled. "So what we did was use the colours in the background."
A set was designed in Panadol blue, and discussion on the segment revolved around ways to avoid everyday aches and pains. "Because it's pain management, we never discuss things like cancer," said Hattar. "There are things that aren't in our territory." Nonetheless, painkillers were recommended only rarely. "We're never pushing the medicine," said Hattar. "We don't want that and Panadol don't want that. It's not an advertorial." The result was a series of common-sensical discussions about mild pain taking place against a blue background. As branded content it operated on a near-subliminal level if it worked at all. One marvels that the drug company was willing to sign off on it. "After a while, brands kind of understand what we are doing and accept it," Hattar assured me. What Core is doing, he said significantly during another conversation, "is basically association," which is to say, it creates a halo of fuzzy positive thoughts around the product it is promoting.
¿ ¿ ¿ It should be apparent by now that branded content is a kind of game for four players. The first, of course, is the consumer, who wants free entertainment but doesn't want to be manipulated into irrational brand preferences. The second is the brand, which wants to establish irrational preferences in the consumer without having to pay for too much commercially inert entertainment. The third is the broadcaster, which needs to make sure neither of the first two sides wins so much that the other refuses to play. And the fourth is the branded content specialist, who is certainly motivated to keep the game going by the same commercial factors as the broadcaster, but who is also, perhaps, inspired by more elusive and personal considerations.
In his other life, for instance, Hattar is an artist. His most prominent commission came from the Victoria and Albert museum in London, where in 2006 he created a conceptual installation called Make Your Own Arab. "I remade three of the English morning shows," he explained. "One was a DIY house thing. One was a treasure hunt where you go and buy and sell things and go to yard sales, and one was a makeover." In each TV parody, British participants attempted to assume the signifiers of Arab identity but kept ending up in the wrong patch of Asia. In the makeover show, a contestant wanted to be an "Arabian princess". Hatter made her look like a "Pakistani-Indian person." The DIY segment gave a British home "a combination of Persian and Turkish feel". The point was to explore the limited penetration of the nuances of Brand Arab into Western consciousness. "It was kind of an interactive, anti-PR stunt," said Hattar, illustrating that the British by and large "don't understand what 'Arab' is."
For Hattar, there are deep continuities between his art and his advertising. "Yes, a lot of the work was based on kind of duality of visuals," he said. "The different ways people could see something." The way these artistic concerns fed into branded content "worked fine for me" he said, "as I always did see the work I did as mass work versus an elitist society that assumes they're the only ones who should aspire to art." Unfortunately, aspiring to art in the Middle East doesn't in itself pay the bills. "When it comes to here, it's very difficult living off even traditional painting and things," he admitted. "So one had to mix and match. Work for six months and then do art for six months."
In a moment of pardonable grandiosity, Hattar compared his work online to the startling eruption of Orson Welles's War of the Worlds onto the airwaves in 1938. "Everyone believed it because it was new and everyone played along. So it's just that - just a different social media now, a different platform, like radio, like TV." Certainly, there was a Wellesean ruthlessness in the way he dispatched Hiroshi and Osamu. The final message on his Facebook page, now closed, explained that evil ninjas "took Osamu away".
"I am very worried," wrote Hiroshi forlornly, before encouraging his fans to enter a Chevrolet competition to upset his jealous former employer. "For Osamu!" he said. Hattar himself was a little melancholy about the end of the Chevrolet adventure. "It is a strange feeling when you close something that has been real and interactive for a while," he wrote to me later, "like that broken feeling when a TV show finishes and those characters are gone." Perhaps it seems odd that one could become so invested in the antics of these cartoonish creations. Then again, it wasn't just Hattar. The duo picked up thousands of fans, some of whom were, after all, "super-scary." And Hattar also got the thing that any artist prizes above all: the respect of his peers. On September 9, the Chevrolet campaign won awards for the Best Use of Content and Campaign of the Year at the 2010 Media and Marketing Awards in London. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, this recognition will have on the Middle East market. Art and commerce have always made uneasy companions, after all.
Ed Lake is deputy editor of The Review.