Battling Branded Content with AR in the Social Media Stadium – Asia Hunt, Strategist, Trollbäck+Company

As advertising encroaches further into our social feeds and inevitably, our daily lives, it has become harder and harder to tell the difference between paid and organic content. Influencers mask sponsorships as lifestyle posts, commercials play between nearly every online video we watch, and product ads are served to us mere minutes after we’ve searched for (or even spoken about) them.

Accordingly, our brains have developed built-in adblockers. As anyone under the age of 40 will tell you, we’ve adapted the innate ability to tune out sponsored content even before consciously registering it as such, making it more difficult for brands to elicit the reaction they seek. Sometimes though, an ad can be so genius in its subtlety that it slips through the cracks and into the mainstream zeitgeist, becoming an organic sensation and prompting people to share. One of the most powerful platforms for this has become Instagram Stories, where brands have begun to use the AR feature to promote their content in offbeat, interesting, and increasingly engaging ways.

For months, brands have been using Instagram filters for stunt campaigns, (Kylie CosmeticsOff-WhiteAdidas Originals, etc.), letting users impose branded designs on their faces and surroundings. By focusing on the consumer rather than the brand, these more subtle “non-ads” incentivize engagement over promotion, increasing organic traction and interaction. 

However, not many brands have gone so far as to make permanent filters, those that naturally integrate their existing content into the lives of the consumer without an explicitly paid sponsorship. FOX Sports’ new AR filters do just that, leveraging its explosive new partnership with WWE to promote the network.

The genius in their application lies not just in its ridiculous premise (superimposing your face onto a wrestler’s body? Priceless), but in the fact that these filters have almost no branding––no bottom bugs, no title or end cards. Instead, the only branded identifiers exist in the top right corner of the filters, where the creators’ name lives, and conveniently, the place users must click to try out the filters for themselves. FOX is using the authorship of this tool to their advantage, employing it into a subtle branding opportunity that compels users to interact with and share the FOX Sports account in a visceral way while keeping its branding unobtrusive and decisively un-adlike.

These filters are not quite a campaign, not quite branded-content. They live somewhere in between, as sharable activations that integrate users directly into the brand world, without ever explicitly branding that world. They let the users put together a story and impose their own narrative ––making for more fun and compelling pieces of content that users will never mistake for ads, yet continue to consume their imparting messaging. 

These innovative brands like FOX Sports, Off-White, and Adidas Originals are bringing back an entertainment value to advertising that has been slowly lost as a result of the increasing onslaught of branding consumers are met with every day. Our platforms now serve shorter and shorter content, so ads have curtailed, and information must be conveyed faster and faster. Thus, it has become more important than ever to get brand messages across in direct, enjoyable, and personally-meaningful ways. Whether that’s done with an AR ad that puts your friend’s face on The Rock’s body, or a compelling copy-driven direction that packs an informal punch, it’s becoming increasingly clear –– brands need to stop advertising and start engaging their audiences, especially on social media.

Written by: Asia Hunt, Strategist, at New York brand design studio Trollbäck+Company who has worked with brands such as MTV and Teen Nick.

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