Advertising, Stories, and Project Runway

To start, I should tell you that I don’t own a TV. Beyond being more of a book person than a screen person when at home, when I occasionally do want to watch a program, online streaming services make viewing incredibly easy. (Yes, I realize it’s abnormal not to have TV, but it’s amazingly freeing. You should really try it.)

Needless to say, my media diet consists of almost no cable / network television, and thus almost no television advertising.

So, when I had the chance to watch an entire episode of “Project Runway,” I noticed a few things.

One thing I noticed was the horrendously executed product placement. I realize I have virtually no point of reference because I don’t watch TV, but some of sponsor mentions in the show were so poorly integrated I was shocked. Examples abound, but suffice it to say that I don’t think ‘forced’ is a strong enough word to describe how bad they were. I remember a prominent figure in the show making it a point to stress the importance of a certain set of products as a part of the design, but the products weren’t ever mentioned again in the show, even in discussion of the designs.

Marketers have always been trying to tighten their grip on popular media, but it’s pretty disappointing (to me, at least) when you can barely tell where the ‘commercials’ end and the ‘programming’ begins. (Maybe it’s good to be so blatant – it’s probably easier for viewers to compartmentalize content.)

As my friend (and regular Runway watcher) Vicky pointed out, trying to keep the show viable means grappling with advertisers. It’s an age old battle, and I’m sure Runway producers are doing what they can to fight it.

But I question how healthy it is for the brands represented. Even if members of the audience are, ugh, the exact demographic sponsors are looking for, it seemed like a pretty lifeless, story-less way to promote products – at least the way it was executed.

Sure, there’s the case for ‘context,’ but some sponsors’ brand mentions were set up as a barrier that people have to endure to get what they want, which are the content and characters in the show. When Vicky and I talked about the program, she didn’t mention brands or talk about buying products, she talked about the sewing skill of the designers and Tim Gunn’s personality.

Mr. Gunn, he had some interesting things to say on the topic:

“This is the huge, horrible, hand-wringing, head-holding issue for us — the sponsors’ demands, and how to work with them and not completely compromise the show. The budget [for the show] is coming from the Weinstein Company. How recklessly are they selling `Project Runway’s’ soul?”

It doesn’t seem like a good brand-move to be on the soul-selling side of the battle over a show that people really like.

Watching the show brought some familiar questions to mind: Do these brands care about their stories? Do they even have a good story to tell? Do they care about their products – are they passionate about making what they make? Or do they care more about their impressions? Is simple awareness their goal? If so, why pursue it by fighting a battle with the content of the show?

Interestingly, after watching the show and trying to answer all of those questions, I was actually glad to be in marketing.

I think that a lot of brands have a remarkable story to tell, and that they don’t have to wring the life out of good content or wear their audience out to tell it. I believe that passion for making what you make is more important than impressions, and that quality sets the stage for sustainability. And I have the privilege of working with a group of people who bring those stories of quality and passion to life everyday.

  • (1) – You can read more of Mr. Gunn’s thoughts on the show here.


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