How Portlandia Makes Hipsters Love Native Advertising

My girlfriend and I were streaming the IFC show Portlandia a few weekends ago when a Geico ad came on that looked so much like the show we were watching that we both thought the commercial break had already ended.

The ad opened with a shot of a hip coffee shop and included Portlandia’s customary title card in the bottom left corner of the screen identifying the scene’s location. My girlfriend even unmuted the television, unwittingly breaking from her practice of avoiding commercials at all costs.

But instead of having to sit through another comedic skit satirizing bougie hipsters, we were treated to a 30-second piece of branded content from Geico that culminated in a joke about pickling—alluding to one of the show’s sketches from several years ago. And as we ran through more episodes, we saw several other native spots from sponsors that used the ethos of the show to appeal to a media-savvy audience that probably would’ve otherwise ignored them.

“The audience is so smart for that show. People are so aware of when they’re watching a commercial and being fed a sponsor message,” said Kim Granito, VP of integrated marketing for IFC. “We try to do it in a way that adds value to the overall viewing experience. The show is just so perfect and ripe for that.”

Geico first began creating native ads for Portlandia back in 2013, using Maxwell the Pig in a commercial that mirrored one of the show’s sketches about two people at a restaurant who interrogate a waitress about a chicken. In the ad, Maxwell takes offense that the waitress—played by the same actress from the original sketch—would offer him pig in the first place.

The insurance company was so happy with the initial ad that it re-upped the following season for a series of commercials in which Maxwell ran for mayor of Portland. Fans of the show were even asked to submit potential campaign slogans on social media.

In addition to the native deals, IFC also integrates brands into the Portlandia universe through clever product placement. Car manufacturer Subaru has been a partner since season one, and its automobiles have now appeared in a few episodes. The network then cuts the footage of these sketches to create ads that run during the show, such as when Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, who play the main characters, are seen having a terrible date in a Subaru. At the end of the clip, a brief moment of branding makes it clear the content is an advertisement.

This season, Subaru increased its commitment by sponsoring “Ride Share,” a four-episode web series starring Brownstein and Armisen that prominently features a Subaru Legacy.

“Portland is a really important market to them as a product,” Granito said. “They’re now scripted into the show as if they’re pretty much a character.”

Though Granito said IFC doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution for clients, the network is a believer in these sorts of native product integrations, especially for its original comedies, like Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang!

All ad deals are negotiated as a package before a season starts airing. The advertisers send IFC a creative brief asking what the network for feedback. Then the network’s advertising department approaches the show’s writers to ask whether they think, for instance, if it’s possible to include three sketches featuring a Subaru during the upcoming season. Once a proposal is agreed upon and paid for, the brands get access to IFC’s in-house advertising team and the Portlandia writing staff.

While the in-show product placement is handled by Portlandia’s writers, most of the native ads, like the Geico spots, are handled by IFC.

“The great thing about the partners we have around Portlandia is they are also fans of the show, and they trust so much what the writers do,” Granito said. “There’s not a lot of force-feeding of brand points or product shots. It’s really ‘Create the best piece of entertainment,’ and that’s why these deals have worked so well.”

And with more and more viewers choosing to watch premium video content outside the realm of traditional television, brands and networks will have to keep looking for creative ways to get viewers to pay attention to commercials.

As Granito put it: “With DVR and Netflix and all of the different places where you can get programming without commercials, there’s even a greater need for really smart, entertaining, native advertising that adds value and brings a brand to life in a way that enhances the overall viewer experience.”

Image by Portlandia

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