A Trojan horse for corporations

On the pop culture podcast that I do, SRSLY, we occasionally review comic book movies, even though neither myself nor my co host Anna are big fans of that type of entertainment. And whenever I find myself enjoying one, as I did recently with Thor: Ragnorok, I always have to stop myself saying one particular phrase when we discuss it afterwards: “That was quite good — for a comic book movie about a super hero.” 

I have the same problem when reviewing branded podcasts (i.e. entire series made at the behest of an advertiser, rather than an editorial podcast that has advert breaks in it). Usually, these shows don’t get much mainstream critical coverage — I mean, we don’t habitually review infomercials on television — but occasionally one will garner a word of mouth reputation for being genuinely good entertainment, and will be covered accordingly.

One such show was The Message, a dystopian fiction podcast that came out in 2015 and was sponsored by “GE podcast theater”. I was fairly heavily into this genre around the time that it debuted, and was reading quite a lot of writing about it. I saw a lot of “if you like Limetown then you’ll love The Message type recommendations, with little acknowledgment that one was an editorial production, with creative decisions made independently by the team behind it, and the other. . . wasn’t. 

I don’t have a problem with branded podcasts existing, at all — if corporations find audio to be a good way of reaching their consumers, that’s all good for those of us trying to scratch a living in this industry. (Obviously I don’t like it when the level of brand involvement in a podcast production is concealed or played down, just like I don’t think it’s right when travel journalists don’t disclose which elements of a trip they are reviewing they got for free, but a few incidents of bad practice doesn’t mean that branded podcasts as a whole are a terrible idea). If the relationship is fully disclosed to listeners, then they can make informed choices about what they’re listening to.

My issue is with how we critique them. For instance: I have enjoyed a few episodes of Fortune Favors the Bold from Gimlet Creative, a branded podcast with MasterCard that tells stories about our relationship with money. It’s very well produced and the host, Ashley C Ford, is warm and empathetic. But I am always aware that the show wouldn’t exist at all without the patronage of a company that sells credit cards, and I feel a bit weird about that background to a podcast that touches on debt as an issue.

It makes me wonder if there are certain stories that are rejected for the show because they feature individuals who have experienced credit card debt, and therefore don’t fit in with the image that the brand wants to project. Producers on editorial shows on similar topics like Bad with Money or Death Sex and Money can make their story choices entirely on what will make for a good episode, and thus I feel a lot more comfortable critiquing their work — they aren’t hamstrung by forces beyond their control.

This matter of advertising vs editorial has long been a preoccupation of mine, because as journalism has moved online and traditional revenue streams have dried up, the balance of power has shifted in the industry. One of the jobs I had early on in my career was writing sponsored content for a political magazine read mostly by legislators and civil servants, where a company that wanted to get its message to those close to power would pay for me to go and interview their CEO, or write a feature about their newest product launch.

It meant I had some pretty bizarre experiences (being flown to Belfast to interview someone about their chronic psoriasis while walking around the holographic Titanic experience stands out) but the resulting copy was always designed to look different to the rest of the magazine. The pages were a different colour, the font was different, and it said “sponsored by this company” at the top of every page. If I had a similar job now — that magazine has since discontinued its print edition is is online-only — I wonder if such care would be taken to disclose who had paid for those features.

All of which is to say: I don’t know how to cover branded podcasts. I worry that they’re a kind of Trojan horse for corporations seeking favourable coverage without having to pay for it, because if the Guardian, say, review such a show the brand is getting a free mention in a prominent newspaper and — if the review is favourable — some free reputation-enhancing publicity. But branded podcasts are also a permanent and growing part of the audio ecosystem, and we can’t ignore them entirely. Perhaps the comic book movie qualifier is the only way to go: “That was quite good — for a branded podcast sponsored by a large corporation.”

Thank you very much for reading, and do hit reply if you have opinions on this you’d like to share with me. I’m also on Twitter @c_crampton.

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