Whether you're watching a TV show with commercials or reading a newspaper with department store ads on every other sheet, you're essentially viewing sponsored content.
At times, these advertisers-content creator relationships create an awkward balance. Palladium Boots -- a footwear brand originally from France now based in California -- teamed up with Pharrell Williams to create "Tokyo Rising," a documentary film that turns the relationship between sponsors and content creators inside out.
The short -- directed by Thalia Mavros -- slickly explores the way artists have confronted and dealt with the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March, and runs about half an hour. Palladium said the film was filmed over a few days in Tokyo.
In it, Williams meets with about a dozen artists, clothing designers, activists, musicians and gallery owners. He tours a massive underground tunnel/flood chamber with a singer (Yuka Uchida of the Trippple Nippples) and visits shops in what appears to have formerly been a slum. Chim Pom, an art collective that focuses on guerrilla public art projects, is also featured at length.
The first artist he interviews is Verbal, best known as part of the rap group Teriyaki Boyz, and his artist wife Yoon. What's striking about their chat -- and the film in general -- is the simple, matter-of-fact awareness with which the artists speak.
"It's ironic because this whole nuclear power is what brought Japan to this economic state," Verbal says in the film. "It boomed because of it -- it was a catalyst to make things happen so quickly. But at the same time, a little tipping of it caused this whole disaster."
Like Verbal, most of those featured in the film offer a view of nuclear energy and Japanese culture that will feel familiar to anyone watching news coverage of the earthquake and tsunami: that it would be hard to envision a non-nuclear Japan and that Japanese people are especially adept at facing adversity with a steady calm.
In an interview with The Huffington Post after the premiere of "Tokyo Rising," Williams described the idea as "shameless," and suggested that it was merely a more honest way for advertisers to be associated with content they believe in.
"This way we're not trying to pull the wool over people's eyes," added Barney Waters, vice president of marketing for Palladium. "As long as we're open and say this is a Palladium project, people are fine with it. Rather than doing a 30-second snapshot in somebody else's program, why don't I just make the whole program, which would end up being way more organic to what my brand stands for? As long as its not subliminal, then why not?"
"They took a Range Rover approach -- they didn't just say this is the most expensive Jeep, they showed what their Jeep is capable of. As a brand, [Palladium] got to do some good for the world and push its model and do it shamelessly," Williams said. "With some other companies when they advertise, at a certain point you can look at them and go, 'Really? Seriously?'"
That's not to say it's a film without flaws. One review astutely noted that focusing on Tokyo artists' experience of the tragedy is a bit like doing a film about the events of September 11th and focusing on a small group of people in Boston.
A member of the audience at the premier asked Williams (a self-professed eco-geek) if he went near the devastated Fukushima nuclear plants. "No ma'am, I wasn't going anywhere near it," the smartly dressed rapper quickly replied, noting that some of the artists they featured had gone close to the radiation-leaking facilities.
And while going to Tokyo and capturing the sentiments of the creative community was a noble effort, the viewer experience at times feels a bit shallow and unnecessarily filtered through Williams' eyes. One segment features Williams looking at photographs on a wall in a gallery, an experience that Palladium could have made more accessible by simply asking the gallery for photos that it could then post.
Waters acknowledged that Palladium chose Williams to host because the brand felt no one could give them the same type of access that the rapper-producer could. As for the content itself, he argued that "the viewer just wants good content" and that the average reader or listener "doesn't care where it comes from."
It's an interesting model, and one that we're likely to see more and more of, with companies expanding their in-house media departments to include more studio capabilities. Palladium is hardly alone in betting on the potential of marketing-funded documentaries and art. Companies such as Red Bull have been creating their own content (including the upcoming movie"The Art of Flight") in the Red Bull Media House.
In the age of Netflix and DVRs that are eliminating TV commercials for more and more viewers anyway, creating content that informs and advertises at the same time may prove to be a smart play. Instead of fighting to be associated with content that evokes the vibe these companies want to channel (urban exploration for Palladium, energy and extreme sports for Red Bull), presenting a branded experience may prove to be a more viable means of viewer engagement.
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Palladium as a company based in France. This version has been changed to reflect that the company is based in California.