Affective Economics 101

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Apprentice

The Apprentice

How many different ways is The Apprentice involved in branding?

1. The Brand as Protagonist: The Donald casts himself and his corporate empire as the series protagonists. In the Sept.23 episode, the Donald ascends down the escalator to a trumpet fanfare and then directs our eyes upwards to enjoy the splendors of Trump Tower. [Play Video]

2. The Brand as Task Master: So far this season, contestants have been asked to design and play test toys for Mattel, to develop new ice cream flavors for Ciao Bella, and to market a new Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste for Proctor and Gamble.

3. The Branding Process as Entertainment: On the Sept.23 episode, contestants demonstrated ways of linking brands and entertainment (circuses, the New York Mets) in order to create buzz for Crest. [Play Video]

4. The Brand as Helper: Frequently, the contestants consult with smaller companies (such as the Alliance Talent Agency [Play Video]) who aid them in their tasks in return for exposure. (see Vendor “Suite”).

5. The Brand as Prize: In many cases, Trump rewards contestants with access to himself and his “things” or to luxury meals and services (such as a caviar feast at Petrushian’s). [Play Video]

6. The Brand as Personal Statement: Some of the contestants can be seen wearing t-shirts promoting brands (such as Goizuetta Business School), seen as Kevin answered the phone in one episode [Play Video]) with which they feel a strong personal connection.

7. The Brand as Tie-in: Following an episode where the contestants designed ice cream, viewers at home were able to order samples of the flavors online.

8. The Brand as Community: Through a tie-in between the Apprentice and Friendster, fans can assert their affiliation with specific contestants and the producers collect real-time data about audience response.

9. The Brand as Event: Following the Sept. 23 episode, with its focus on thinking big, Trump launched a sweepstakes competition with Yahoo! Hot Jobs, whose 25k award is designed to encourage new initiatives.

These examples scarcely exhaust the roles brands play in the series (for example, the various ways NBC is using the series to revise its own brand identity). The importance of reality television goes well beyond its specific ratings successes. Reality television is the testing ground for convergence and branding strategies at an important moment of media in transition. The temptation among media-savvy people is to dismiss The Apprentice as nothing but one big product placement, but this would not adequately explain its popularity. The Apprentice is popular because it’s a well-made show and the brand tie-ins work because they are linked to its core emotional mechanics.

Let’s consider some important data points:

Right now, 43 percent of all households skip commercials. Tivo and other digital video recorder users skip between 60 and 70 percent of advertisements. These numbers are producing panic within the consumer economy. Many worry that the effectiveness of a spot during a top rated television show will be about the same or less than the clickthrough rate on the web. Yet, there are other ways of reading these figures. It isn’t that 70 percent of Tivo users skip commercials altogether; people use Tivos to decide which commercials to watch. Marketers are trying to understand what kinds of commercials people choose to watch and why. More generally, they are looking for ways to more powerfully link brands and entertainment content. These approaches include product placements, but also context-specific commercials, such as this spot for the Trump board game which ran during a commercial break on The Apprentice [Play Video] and this spot for Pringles which wraps Survivor-specific content around a commercial for their canned chips. [Play Video]

Brand managers are fusing entertainment and branding content both to grab the attention of ad-skippers and to reshape our emotional bonds with brands. Here’s former Coca-Cola CEO Steven Heyer speaking at a gathering of advertising and entertainment industry insiders last year: “We will use a diverse array of entertainment assets to break into people’s hearts and minds. In that order. We’re moving to ideas that elicit emotion and create connections. And this speeds the convergence of Madison and Vine. Because the ideas which have always sat at the heart of the stories you’ve told and the content you’ve sold… whether movies or music or television… are no longer just intellectual property, they’re emotional capital.” Or here’s Kevin Roberts, the CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, talking about what he calls “lovemarks” (brands that inspire cult followings): “the emotions are a serious opportunity to get in touch with consumers. And best of all, emotion is an unlimited resource. It’s always there, waiting to be tapped with new ideas, new inspirations, and new experiences.”

Industry researchers are discovering that the most valuable viewers may be loyals (or what we call fans). For most shows, less than 5 percent of all viewers regard the program to be a favorite. For some shows (and these including many cult and reality television programs), the numbers may reach 40 or 50 percent of viewers. Loyals are significantly more apt to watch the entire show each week, seek out additional information, watch advertisements, recall brands, and talk about them with others. Marketers, then, are seeking programs which will generate high concentrations of loyal viewers, even if those programs do not necessarily enjoy high ratings overall. And networks are seeking to slow the erosion of their own viewership to cable competitors or digital media. Reality shows may be one of the few remaining forms of appointment-based television.

Brand loyalty is the holy grail of affective economics because of what economists call the 80/20 rule: for most consumer products, 80 percent of purchases are made by 20 percent of their consumer base. A generation of cultural and media scholars had equated the active spectator with audience resistance, but now, corporate America is embracing audience activity as the golden gateway into more reliable patterns of consumption.

Marketing researchers speak about “brand communities,” trying to better understand why some groups of consumers form intense bonds with the product and through the product, with fellow consumers. These ethnographers research specific groups of highly committed consumers (such as Harley-Davidson riders, Apple computer users, or Saturn drivers) or what they call “brandfests,” social events (either commercially sponsored or grassroots) that pull together large numbers of consumers. As these brand communities move online, members are able to sustain their connections over long periods and thus to intensify the role the community plays in their purchasing decisions. Companies seek to move more casual consumers towards links with these brand communities and count on what they call “inspirational consumers,” in effect, fans of brands, to advocate on their behalf. Advertisers are drawn towards the audience participation surrounding reality programs because they can help fuel the growth of online brand communities.

Marketers want to understand the relationship between fan communities (the most committed consumers of an entertainment franchise) and brand communities (the most committed consumers of a branded product). What happens when the two are brought face to face? Do brand messages become part of what people talk about when they discuss the show? Can advertisements gain greater currency by becoming vehicles by which fans can get more program-specific information?

At the same time, consumer companies are trying to figure out what kinds of links to the entertainment properties consumers will accept or value and which links alienate viewers. For example, has frustration over the voting mechanisms in American Idol last season rebounded and left people feeling more negative towards ATT, the company which has used the show to broaden the market for text messaging? And if people are feeling more negative to ATT, how does this impact Ford and Coca-Cola, two companies that are also closely associated with the program content? The unpredictable character of unscripted programming increases the risks in some cases: a product placement for Stolichnaya Citroena during Big Brother several seasons ago went seriously awry because one “houseguest” was an alcoholic who was stealing other people’s booze, getting sloppy drunk, and required an intervention, not exactly the messaging the company intended.

Before we write all of this off as simply an insidious new marketing strategy, consider a few more implications: Such arguments strengthen the hands of fan communities lobbying producers to keep their favorite series on the air. High favorability may trump high ratings in the new affective economy. The brand communities often emerge as important sites of consumer activism as those most invested in a brand seek to hold corporations more accountable.

Consumer products companies are not the only groups trying to tap popular interest in The Apprentice to shape our emotional responses to their messages. Consider this anti-Bush commercial created by the political organization True Majority to reach younger voters and circulated virally. Is this a form of ad-busting or is it itself an ad, given the fact that Ben Cohen, one of the group’s leaders, is CEO of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream . In the marketing world, they now talk about Citizen Brands — brands that build greater consumer loyalty by tapping into our political commitments. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s or the Body Shop (on the left) or Coors (on the right) were early explorers of the relationship between consumers and citizens. At the end of the day, both Ciao Bella and Ben and Jerry’s are in the same business — selling ice cream.

The example of Citizen Brands should help us rethink of own knee-jerk responses to these marketing strategies. The product placements work because they are tied to something people care about — whether it’s how to defeat George Bush or who is going to the boardroom. If the brand campaigns interfere too much with what draws people to these programs, they fail. We may chuckle over the heavy-handedness of The Donald’s self-promotion, but at the end of the day, he makes great television.

Links of Interest:

1. NBC’s Apprentice site

2. Village Voice article on the art of Trump branding

3. An exploration of cult branding

Image Credits:

The Apprentice Logo

Please feel free to comment.


  • Marnie R. Binfield

    Another place where it seems that advertisers have found a way to place ads that viewers can not “skip” is on televised sports, where replays, highlights, etc. are all sponsored. Also NASCAR has developed a huge fan community and it is covered (literally) in advertising. Both of these I think are sites where the fans and brands collide.

    Also, why does this all seems so insidious when, in fact, as the Coca-Cola CEO says, advertisers are basically doing what they’ve always done. Going for the heart to get at the wallet.

    And finally, is there such a thing as being a “fan” of a brand?

  • The death of advertising

    To me, the key distinction between programming and advertising is – the first one just wants you to stay tuned, the second one, ultimately, wants you to purchase a product. There seems to be an assumption that if people see an ad they like, they’ll talk about it with their friends, and then they will all be more likely to purchase the product than they were before. But does awareness always equal an increased likelihood of purchase? Don’t some media-savvy people (and this is an ever-expanding group) build up a resistance to this? Advertisers are in a constant battle to mutate, and stay ahead of this resistance. But sometimes I suspect they’re deluding themselves by thinking they’re that far ahead.

    Let’s say a company has budget of 1 million dollars that they could use in two ways – creating a product that was slightly more effective than that of the competition, or buying ad time on “The Apprentice”. If they use it in the first way, I will be more likely to buy their product after trying it, in effect becoming an “inspirational consumer.” I’ll tell anyone who asks me about the product about how it is preferable to the competition. I think this is how Apple or BMW became long-run profitable, sustainable companies. If the company uses the $ in the second way, I’ll go to work and tell my colleagues, “Hey, did you see that dopey Pepsi ad with the bears dressed up as people? Wasn’t that outrageous!?”. And then I’ll go buy a Coke. Not exactly an inspirational consumer.

    Interesting idea about people becoming loyal to a product simply to keep a show on the air. To me, this IS a subscription service in all but name, like saying “buy stock in Coke or we’ll cancel ‘The Simpsons’. I don’t know if you could really call it ‘advertising’. It’s not as if I have to sit through a 30 second entertaining spot about Coke, nor do I have to believe that it’s the superior product. The fate of two things, Simpsons and Coke, have been yoked together. I buy one so that I may watch the other.

    What about a world with no advertising, where people read ‘Consumer Reports’ to get information on what to buy and/or rely on personal experience and that of peers, and get their entertainment from subscription services like HBO, or the aforementioned vote-for-Simpsons-by-buying-Coke example? People would still be buying things, and there would still be competition that provides incentive to innovate, so in that sense, it’s simply a more efficient capitalist market (isn’t money spent on ads a wasted opportunity to innovate?). Is there anything logically impossible about this premise?

  • Reality TV and bad branding….

    I was reading this and thinking about the brief period when Trista Rehn, ABC’s first “Bachelorette,” was pitching a ton of products on television in between the conclusion of that first season and her nauseatingly over the top tele-wedding a few months after. Advertisers jumped at her flash in the pan popularity and signed her up for a bunch of marketing spokesperson work only to discover, after the fact, that people actually responded to her as a spokesperson very poorly.

    The notion that traditional television ads may be disappearing in favor of other methods of advertising is entirely valid. But I am wondering what kind of genre discussion can be brought to this discussion? I think that in the case of reality television, with its shorter series lengths, image of contestants as “feigned” celebrities among the much of the viewing audience, etc., successful exploitation of its participants (however trite and trifling they may be) requires a different kind of advertising mentality….. How much of this is reality specific, or more prevalent in this genre?

  • Has an ad ever broken your heart?

    I suppose the eventual divorcement (so to speak) of Trista and her sponsors supports H. Jenkins’ argument. He’s positing that the audiences’ relationship with certain brands is verging – at least – on the same territory as those felt relationships with characters and situations we might associate with more classical notions of drama and identification. In your example, the audience’s disdain for Trista’s sincerity mapped onto her sponsor/patrons, unfortunately for them. In Jenkin’s example…well, does anyone doubt The Donald’s sincerity? The statement itself is a kind of joke: he betrays little motivation beyond his own self-aggrandizement. And how much of the pleasure of that show come from that very fact? The relation to genre presents another angle, but not a real threat to his argument. I think genre is pretty transparent to these “affective economics” because audiences have come to accept the “affirmation” of sponsorship as a kind of affirmation of their identity. We allow loyalty to develop with brands that seem to affirm a shared set of “interests.” But do we not allow a brand to disappoint us? To lie to us? Does it matter to rowdy football guys watching FOX Sports that Miller Beer is also a major sponsor of the Gay Games? Or, vice versa, are gay fans of Coca-Cola paying attention when Sprite sponsors the ESPN’s NFL game day program that hires noted paleo-conservative Rush Limbaugh? Does it matter to West Texas cheerleaders of the Baptist persuasion that Nike sponsors lbgt events all over the place? There are some noted counter-examples (queers v. coors beer, labor v. The Gap) but generally this is a kind of drunken infatuation where the consumer sees that dimples but not the warts. The affective relationship between sponsors and consumers crosses all sorts of genre, media, and identity boundaries and it’s a disturbingly one-way love affair. Not only is the relationship affective, it’s abusive. Like any lothario, the brand is willing to betray its lover and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • Maybe not impossible, but likely improbable…

    Elliot’s proposal above is an intriguing one, but a move to more subscription-based forms of TV combined with an elimination of commercials, while enticing, seems to be highly unlikely. For such a turn of events to take place, TV consumers would need to be willing to pay for all TV content through subscriptions; prices beyond even the current price of cable to offset the loss of ad revenues. While one can argue that the increased costs of the cable feed would be offset by increased product quality or product innovation, it would take very media-savvy consumers to realize this, and even if that group is ever-expanding, they still make up a minority of the audience. Add to that the idea of disinfecting HBO type services of advertisements would be quite a feat as well, given that a majority of their films and original programming feature product placements fairly heavily. I may be a pessimist, but I think that advertising in its various forms has shown itself to be effective (and affective as RCL points out), and with the current success of The Apprentice, I have to think that we are not yet media-savvy enough as a population to lobby for such substantial change.

  • in response to RCL

    I’m inclined to agree with you on the genre issue, but only partially. I feel as if Trump’s recognizability as a pseudo-celebrity and a brand makes this argument particularly compelling in this instance, and the fact that the show culminates in a person slipping from the televisual to the real makes “what he’s selling” that much more real/attractive/possible, etc.

  • Cameron Mullins

    Hour long commercials? Fine.

    I think what makes “The Apprentice” such a successful reality tv show is because of the product placement. It works with the premise of the show. The presence of the products reinforces the idea that this show is supposed to be based in reality. I think the viewer can relate to a ‘mission’ in which the team must develop a new add campaign for Pontiac’s brand new car than they could with any mission on “Survivor”. “The Apprentice” is based in a business world, in the middle of NYC. If anything, “Survivor” is isolated from reality…stuck on an island without food, jumping through the hoops and doing stunts to stay on the show. What kind of reality is this? I don’t know anyone from an island in the Pacific. It’s more probable (and believable) that someone would be presented with the same challenges that the contestants on “The Apprentice” are presented with. That’s not to say “The Apprentice” is reality. It’s certainly a highly edited television production…just one more people can relate to, I believe. That being said, so what if it’s “one big product placement”? This placement and presence of actual corporations only supports the idea of reality television. So if I actually sat through an hour long Pontiac commercial, then it was the most entertaining commercial I’ve ever seen. My goal was to be entertained. If Pontiac can find a way to present their product to me through such entertainment, then I approve.

  • advertising

    With more channels and more digital video recorders such as TiVo, less people are watching commercials. Therefore companies must come up with new ways to advertise their product. I believe that companies now must either incorporate their product into a show or make their commercials better.Incorporating a product into a show forces the viewer to watch the commercial if they want to watch the show. There are different levels though of how incorporated the product is in the show. Shows like the Apprentice are practically like hour-long commercials, then there are shows like 24 where the good guys drive Ford. The Apprentice has advertising on so many levels its ridiculous. The whole show is just a promotion for Donald Trump and each week they promote multiple products. They promote the products they win, the cars they drive, the companies that they work for in the mission, ect. This type of advertising I believe is the most effective, if you can get people to watch the show, “We may chuckle over the heavy-handedness of The Donald’s self-promotion, but at the end of the day, he makes great television”. On the other hand, there are shows like 24 that advertise in a much more subtler way. This allows the show to keep its dignity, but it does not advertise the product as well.Another way for companies to advertise their product is to make better commercials. People will make a point to watch commercials if they are entertaining. For example, many people who are not even football fans will watch parts of the Super Bowl, particularly half time, just to see the commercials. If companies consistently put on commercials of Super Bowl caliber, I believe more people would watch the commercials and stop changing the channel. So with more ways for viewers to skip advertising, companies must try new techniques to advertise their product. Better commercials and incorporating advertisements into shows seems to be the way to do this. Only time will tell to see what works.