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Peggy Conlon

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Sneaking the Spinach in with the Popcorn

Posted: 10/07/11 02:53 PM ET

How many of you saw Steven Soderbergh's latest movie Contagion and told a friend about the realities of a pandemic and started washing your hands? Or after watching an episode of Grey's Anatomy, urged a loved one to talk to their doctor about some undiagnosed health issue?

That's the power of content integration -- it can instantly elevate an issue, spark a dialogue and spur consumer action. And entertain us all at the same time. What exactly is content integration? In commercial advertising, we might call it "product placement" but in the entertainment industry, it's when storylines and social issues merge to create compelling socially-conscious storylines.

This was the topic we delved into at the Ad Council/Google panel held during Ad Week, where we heard from top-notch executives from MTV, Participant Media, The Legacy Foundation and Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Why is content integration so influential? Because, as Wendy Cohen, Director of Digital Campaigns for Participant Media (the Jeffrey Skoll-founded film studio behind many documentary and feature films including An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, The Help and Contagion) explained, movies or TV shows can bring us together to a virtual dinner table where we will voluntarily watch a 1-2 hour show and willingly discuss it with our friends or family. Or jump online and contribute to a blog, Facebook or Twitter exchange or chat room about what we just saw.

But to do it right, you have to both entertain and educate -- with a heavy emphasis on entertain. As yesterday's New York Times' ad column quoted panelist Jason Rezpka, Vice President for Public Affairs at MTV, "It can't be read as a two-hour PSA." Or as Wendy put it, you have to "sneak the spinach in with the popcorn."

And from an advertiser or media company's perspective, content integration needs to be authentic. There needs to be an organic connection between the brand and the cause. That point was driven home by Calle Sjonell, deputy chief creative officer at BBH -- the agency behind the brilliant Google Chrome ad featuring the anti-bullying "It Gets Better" campaign.

The Chrome ads were originally designed to showcase how the Web can be a tool for social good -- not to promote awareness of bullying or LGBT discrimination. And that's why Google chose the "It Gets Better" campaign -- it's an exceptional example of how YouTube and the Web can create a movement and trigger a national dialogue. And that's when content integration is at its best -- when a company's core brand complements the storytelling.

And does it work? You bet it does. One of MTV's top-rated shows -- 16 and Pregnant -- is changing the norms around teen pregnancy: Research findings from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that 82 percent of teenagers who've watched the show say the show helped them understand the challenges of pregnancy and how to avoid it.

Eric Ashe, Chief Marketing Officer for the Legacy Foundation (well-known for its iconic youth smoking prevention campaign called, simply, "Truth") talked about how they integrated a smoking cessation storyline into NBC's Biggest Loser. A contestant was trying to quit smoking in addition to losing weight and Legacy provided a quit-smoking expert for on-air counseling and support. Legacy's EX®cessation website saw a huge spike in referrals from the Biggest Loser site.

Moderator Vicky Rideout, who spent over 10 years at the Kaiser Family Foundation and negotiated groundbreaking partnerships with the entertainment industry (ER, MTV and BET), shared some interesting slides about their efforts with Grey's Anatomy after airing a show on HIV mother-to-child transmission, awareness among regular viewers of the issue jumped from 15 percent to over 60 percent. And 17.5 viewers watched that particular show. But Vicki also stressed the need to develop and implement a long-term sustainable strategy and content integration shouldn't be an afterthought.

Talk about reach and dramatically raising awareness. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go volunteer at a food bank -- I was inspired by Bonnie Bedelia's character on Parenthood last Tuesday night.