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What Does Branded Content Have to Do with Citizens United? (Or, How are Filmmakers Participating in the Corporate Takeover of America?)

Whiskey Fist

Gillian Horvat’s short Whiskey Fist plays tomorrow at Fantasia Fest. Here, she pens her second guest essay for Filmmaker. After asking whether brands’ lives matter, she returns to continue her critique of independent film’s complicity with brand messaging.

The last time I unsubscribed from an Urban Outfitters e-newsletter I don’t even remember signing up for they told me they were sorry to see me go. A few days later I got a message from Citibank that they “missed me” because I hadn’t been doing any online banking recently. For a moment, I felt moved. I have close human friends that I’ve fallen out of touch with who have never reached out with that kind of emotion. Unlike them, Citibank, the corporation that makes interest off the money in my checking account, notices when I’m not around. Then I felt anger. I have a low guilt threshold, and Citibank had just manipulated and provoked me into feeling remiss for not doing enough online banking. But that’s the nature of emotional marketing. Brands aim to hook consumers by eliciting strong responses, with loaded language like Citibank’s and also with stories, aka content. Brands have convinced us they’re people. And, legally, they are.

Corporations have been protected by the 14th Amendment since 1886. Since then, courts in the U.S. have granted them more and more of the protections guaranteed to persons under the Constitution, including freedom of speech. Finally, when campaign spending was recognized as a right guaranteed by the 1st Amendment the Citizens United decision was handed down. According to the law, persons are not necessarily human and so the distinction between brand and human is becoming progressively amorphous.

However, corporations know what the difference is, or at least the perceived difference: authenticity. According to management consultant Joseph Pine, the main goal of our tertiary economy is to “render authenticity” to consumers. If film is a business, what exactly is our commodity? I would say catharsis. Filmmakers are paid to elicit emotions from an audience through personally created narrative product.

When a director is hired by a corporation to make branded content part of the compensation is for their authenticity. As an entity that outlives individuals, that decides by committee, brands are incapable of injecting personal traits into the semiotic connotations surrounding their products. Companies define their brand identities using adjectives that pertain to human psychology: bold, trustworthy, irreverent, etc. Logically, these words can not describe a group comprising a mass of individuals working in various capacities, in multiple countries, with their own history and belief systems. Apple, an inhuman corporate entity that employs thousands of disparate individuals, is not sexy, smart or cool. Only a person is.

Branded content, unlike commercials, are more easily confused with a filmmaker’s independent output. They look like short films or documentaries, but are actually conceived and produced to drive the agenda of the corporation. Any social or artistic benefit is secondary.

A filmmaker’s authenticity is just like their reputation: easy to lose, nearly impossible to get back. That’s why brands pay so much better than non-profits or low-budget productions. But high-paying jobs (cartel leader, organ seller) often come with ethical drawbacks. When a filmmaker creates branded content that evokes positive human traits they are facilitating the power of corporate speech. Corporations harness all the benefits of persons under the law and diminish their liabilities. In recent occurrences of major business malfeasance, like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the subprime banking crisis, some fines have handed out, but very few humans have been punished. Corporate justice is incapable at this point of punishing greedy and incompetent actors in any measure commensurate to the suffering of the dispossessed, the maimed, and the dead.

Can filmmakers really benefit from creating branded content in any way that compensates them for empowering corporate speech? In the short term, there’s a paycheck. But they’ve also sacrificed some of their authenticity — or better put, harmed their “authenticity brand”.

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