I’ll have to admit. I’m one of those people who don’t really find Dilbert that amusing. I do, however, think its creator Scott Adams is an intelligent — and very funny — guy. Yesterday, the Dilbert comic strip contained a rather blatant product placement for a Dilbert-branded online service called DilbertFiles.com. Some readers (see the comments on the first link) seemed to think Adams had crossed some editorial or journalistic line of integrity (It’s a comic strip, people.). Last November, Adams explained on his blog that he had worked out a deal with SendYourFile.com to create a Dilbert-branded version of its service. Today, he issued a statement that is reprinted on TechFlash.com in which he invites the protestors very cordially and with diplomacy to, “Get a life.”
Later: See, friends. In periods of transition, like when radio or TV or the Internet first come into existence, no one really knows what’s the business model or what rules one should apply to content to attract the people necessary to make viable the business model. I imagine the business model for comics goes something like this: Newspapers pay a syndication service a small fee to run a strip in the newspaper. The syndication service and the cartoonist share that revenue. I can’t imagine that revenue is very much, so I doubt many cartoonists get rich from these fees alone. The real money is in merchandising, licensing and all sorts of ancillary publishing and other types of spin-offs. Scott Adams does these things better than most. He’s a savvy entrepreneur and somewhat the geek, so it doesn’t surprise me that he saw the opportunity to apply the Dilbert brand on a web service.
As for the the broader issue of “product placement” within “content,” as I’ve said before: I think different rules apply in different contexts. News has a higher standard than entertainment. And comic strips fall way below standard entertainment. As long as there is transparency in the “placement” (and a Dilbert-branded product in the comic strip Dilbert is fairly transparent) then the reader is the final judge. If someone wants to stop reading Dilbert or watching 24 or American Idol because of product placements, then it’s up to them.
And by the way, it’s no longer called “product placement.” It’s now branding integration. To see what I mean, read this story from the New York Times about a show that starts next week on TNT called “Trust Me” that is set in an advertising agency with the characters discussing real brands. (Which is done in Mad Men, but unlike that show, this show is set in present-day Chicago.)
Quote about the involvement of Dove in the program:
“What is so central on any branded integration,” Mr. Rubin (of Dove) said, “and I’ve worked on a bunch, is that with the ones that do it right, the brand’s involvement adds to the story being told” without usurping “the storyteller’s job. The show has to be great entertainment for me to succeed in doing what I’m trying to do,” he added. The main reason Dove’s role in “Trust Me” “feels authentic,” Mr. Rubin said, was a collaboration between the brand’s executives and the writers that involved more “direct engagement on both fronts” than is typical.
“Great entertainment” and “collaboration between brand executives and writers” and “direct engagement on both fronts” — those are phrases one doesn’t typically read within the same sentence.
I hope they succeed. I look forward to seeing the show.