This Vacation is Brought to You By…(Part 2: Branding Partnerships)

Cruise news, trip tips, kids’ brand loyalty pitches at cheerleading camps, sports and spa getaways…

Who’s sponsoring your ‘fun?’ Are you aware?

Cruise lines are wisely using their own social networking connection as a conduit for repeat business and new referrals, so passengers can share their own experiences with others…Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise line just partnered with web-based Scrapblog so vacationers can create personalized, one-of-a-kind multimedia memories of their “Fun Ship” vacation…

Both of these sound like something I would’ve pitched (if it existed) back in the ’80s when I began as a cruise line specialist, because they’re customer-focused enhancements.

Rewinding history a bit, I started writing for start-up American Hawaii Cruises as Advertising Promotion manager in a door-knocking “I have something you need” guts-ball move that only a collegiate ingénue would readily attempt. Being from Hawaii, (fun Hawaiian phrase site, Keola!) I figured they’d need a ‘kamaaina keiki’ to write with authority about local island nooks and crannies since they were a bunch of mainland PacRim ‘suits.’ Sure enough, I launched my ad portion of my career decades ago writing shore excursion copy, Berlitz travel guides, LeisureGuide editorials and coming up with cool names for the ship’s common areas. (Lahaina Landing and Tradewinds Terrace revealed my love of alliteration early on)

Travel’s always been in my blood so the thought of ‘cross-promotions’ writing for travel channels like Sunset Films/Readers Digest never felt like ‘product integration’ as much as it did a ‘value-added’ alliance that was a win-win to me…So let’s take this notion of branded travel experiences and apply it to vacations for a moment…

If cruisers can easily customize their own Scrapblog with audio, video, digital pictures, the works, via template that’s exclusively destination-driven per the Carnival cruise blog, isn’t that brand-embedded entertainment much like the FCC product placement controversy where we’re part of the consortium advocating for disclosure? No.

It’s not quite the same as product placement. And here’s why…

American Idol is product placement incarnate: 4151 product placements in the first 38 episodes this year; 14 minutes per show on average, and yes, plenty of KIDS viewing all that ambient advertising that seeps into the psyche like an ephemeral backdrop. Coke couches, receiving rooms, props and perks so prevalent that “Coke red” itself is a cognitive color cue. Likewise, AT&T Wireless is the exclusive ‘voting’ vehicle for all those Idol fans to give their thumbs up or down, worth a verbal Idol mention by the host every time a contestant finishes their schtick…Clearly, the line between paid content integration and programming has blurred.

So how does this differ from ‘regular’ advertising? Product placement is the physical appearance of an item, whereas product integration is the embedding of a commercial entity into the very plot of the show. In the case of American Idol, and reality shows in general, it gets even more fuzzy since plot is a subjective semantics game.

How do co-op partnerships or branded alliances differ from undisclosed revenue generating streams or subtle product placement often off the radar?

The FCC is looking into this right this minute, (22pp. pdf file here, released just yesterday)…

Here’s a simple primer from “How Stuff Works” explaining the cognitive difference between product placement and product partnerships to help make sense of all the issues being reviewed.

I’m not against marketing by any means, I mean, c’mon, look at my background, but I do feel it’s impacting the medium with insidious prevalence and the boundaries have been erased to a damaging level, usurping quality and ethics in the process.

To me, upfront partnerships can support and align with each other to create a consumer benefit and valued marketing premise that’s fully disclosed and transparent. Examples?

The JetBlue and Bliss Spa promo of in-flight amenities to soothe weary travelers was a welcome pairing on my last red-eye flight ironically coming from the CCFC conference on commercial-invasiveness. I appreciated it, actually. A new sunscreen lip-balm handed out at a seaside snack shack is a useful freebie that prevents rather than causes harm…Again, I’d say that’s a ‘transparent’ ploy that’s a win-win.

And yes, imho, the Carnival/Scrapblog enhances the cruiser’s experience…It’s a ‘value-add’ as we’d say in the industry.

Carnival has templates themed for their most popular destinations: the Caribbean, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Europe, enabling easy creation of keepsakes in a snap with share and compare web deliverability…Consider THIS copy could be ‘product placement’ IF Shaping Youth were sponsored by Carnival or Scrapblog. But it’s not! See the difference?

An unbiased source including content by choice is one thing, a paid ‘sock-puppet’ is a shill, which I believe merits FULL disclosure, blogs included! (We have NO sponsors, btw, as we’re self-funded, but if and when we ever DO, even a hospital or foundation, be assured I’ll let you know!)

Now, here’s where those crystalline blue waters get murky with overt vs. covert branding…

If you choose to embrace a brand that’s inherently selling by its very existence, you KNOW what you’re in for…They’re ALL branded entities, overt in their goal to either move product, or instill a quality message, and often it’s both.

Hershey’s Chocolate Factory Tours, a Disney cruise, LegoLand, or even teachers camps sponsored by Steve Spangler Science seminars to inspire fun learning in classrooms…they offer fabulous FREE experiments that can be duplicated in classrooms and if you’re a lazy consumer like me, it’s even more convenient to order the kits with everything and scale to size.

So is that covert or overt branding? Or just plain ‘corporate image’ branding?

I’d say it’s like Apple camp…it positions the brand as a reliable, quality entity which you usually want ‘more’ of. And rightfully so, it’s a great company.

Product demos and experiments build skill sets and comfort levels, so you’re bound to use them or integrate them in your daily life in some way…even if they don’t even say a word about their products, if it’s branded well it usually seeds the desire and trust as a corporate entity.

A successfully branded camp, tour, or theme park experience often leads to ‘feel good’ moments, and in commercial entities like DISNEY, where the rides exit smack dab into the retail store, they’re leveraging those emotions for purchase to ‘snag a few gifts to take home’ on the spot.

Let me be clear: I have NO gripe with camps and offerings that disclose who they are or what they sponsor…

For example, I serve on the Camp Galileo Advisory Board, which has a branded partnership with the de Young Museum, the Tech Museum of Innovation, and Klutz . When people send their kids there, they are AWARE that the sessions will no doubt incorporate themes that may overlap, and in fact are sent home every week with a full ‘what we did this week’ review of their learning fun.

Just like Steve Spangler Science, this is an opportunity to teach and tie-in with reputable, fun experiences, and it is NOT remotely a ‘commercial.’

They are up front about some of the supplies used, and even the free experiment ideas the kids take home are detailed each week in terms of replication or what they specifically learned each day in camp—full transparency.

But what about subtle sponsorships that are NOT as overt and upfront with their brand or their disclosures…ones that leak into your vacation plans and may ‘cost you’ once you’ve returned home?

For example, few parents would blink in coming across the creative Crayola Art Camp or the Sesame Street Character Breakfast, or even the Xbox 360 Game Garage at the Beaches resorts…

…EXCEPT, perhaps, for parents like me, trying to limit screen time w/kids that may have had zero exposure to Xbox up until kiddie camp on vacation!

If it’s promoted in advance (brochures, ads, like Beaches does) then it’s the consumer’s choice as to whether they want to deal with the nag factor of being at a resort where kids opt-out or opt-in.

However, if it’s implied, (e.g. they say they have ‘children’s programs and kids camps’ to keep junior occupied and then spring the content on you once you’re there) I’d say that’s foul play…

Point? Even if the brand is upfront about product pairings, it needs to be on YOUR exposure radar, whether you’re an adult or a child. If you get blind-sided, it can get ugly fast…

Example? This NYTimes article about kids being exposed to Halo3 at Sunday school where it was introduced as a ‘lesson’…Reaction ran from ‘cool’ to ‘panic attack’ and to me, it smacked of blatant youth recruitment by the church, with uncanny incentive-driven marketing savvy. (even many youth pastors concurred)

So how do we teach kids how to be brand savvy and aware when there’s a vested interest in terms of gleaning eyeballs, mindshare or good will?

I’d like to think embedding media literacy early on pays off, teaching children in ‘game form’ how advertisers embed brands.

Digital is a great site for starters…Have children ‘spot the spin.’ In commercials, note the difference between sneaky product ‘placement’ and branded product partnerships…

And on vacation?

Build childrens’ media literacy via scavenger hunt games for branded resort logos from sand-ashtray imprints to toiletries…Or captive audience tray-table ads and screenings taking place while you’re seat-belt bound.

It’s not all FAA in-flight info, that’s for sure.

From logos on the bottom of the pool to unusual promos in the sand of pristine beaches, like this restaurant in Mumbai, India, noted on Customers Rock which used sea shells to lure diners in a literal ‘shell game’ of interactivity, it’s obvious advertisers are eager to get your eyeballs, even if it means chancing some disgust.

This one ran the gamut of reactions from eco-litter of unspoiled surroundings to ‘cool ways to keep kids engaged,’ needless to say, I fall in the pristine nature camp of ‘leave me alone, stop grabbing my wallet’ territory, though the marketer in me was bemused…

Media literacy is one of the few weapons in the cache to put the filter between kids’ ears…Maybe I’m an ad snob, but somehow SeaWorld sponsored by Anheuser-Busch (complete with beer garden) feels like a disconnect to me, whether they’re mining parents’ loyalties, or seeding brand loyalty for future kegger kiddies.

It feels invasive. Manipulative. And just plain wrong to have Anheuser-Busch sponsoring water parks and Sesame Place fergoshsakes…

In fact, when I took my tween pair, the younger god-daughter voiced her view it was ‘to keep the parents happy’ whereas my own teen said, “they’re going after ME”…Hmn. That’s my girl…Mind you, that may not be an issue for long, if Warren Buffett and the newsbreaking hostile takeover bid by the Belgium beverage magnate succeeds.

Some of my most jarring ‘huh?’ moments have surfaced on vacation, or dealing with ‘kids camps’ seeing McDonalds and Coke teaming for free “sports camps,” Pepsi’s ‘sensible’ deal with the YMCA, or Coke’s free (C5YF) philanthropic feel good camp for at risk kids.

Again, it’s all nuanced, and every age and stage needs to weigh their value judgments and discriminating filters as to what passes the sniff test for the greater good in their own world.

Six Flags theme parks’ recent partnership with Kraft will no doubt bring the processed Lunchables and 100 cal pouch packs into the beg-fest of the school year; (note the oh, so diverse visual at left) but frankly, theme parks are commercial havens for junk food as it is, so at least Kraft has been trying to reformulate ingredients to clean up their act a tad.

Nike Sports Camps in themselves are a ‘commercial’ for their brand…And yes, when they partnered with Power Bar, it’s less offensive than say SnickersCharged or Buzz Bites… with caffeine and sugar amping up kids like this ‘stimulus plan for candy’ article in the WSJ implies…But much like partnering with sports drinks, the Nike name seeds and sanctions a credibility message embracing a ‘need’ for supplemental ‘energy food and drinks’ and that in itself is disconcerting.

It requires a discerning eye and fuels unnecessary product use, along with less than safe messaging to kids on the ‘energy’ front, since many of the other products in that dietary category aren’t remotely meant for children.

Seeing free Red Bull given out via Mini-Cooper to ten year olds on bikes really ticked me off…especially with tween buzz and teen implications…Whereas Huggies handing out free Lil’ Swimmers via mama blog giveaways or even poolside samples really doesn’t faze me. (eco-issues aside)

In sum, a peek into partnership practices for ANY summer fun should reveal who’s who on the playing field and ‘flag’ you to the vested interests at hand…See if they pass the sniff test on your own ‘family values.’

When you’re on vacation, think about the ‘feel good’ moments and the brands being associated with them.

Above all, when ad creep, ambient advertising, and product placement seamlessly enters the children’s sphere like a Trojan Horse, without a brash, arm-flailing show of attention…It’s all the more worthy of watching.

It’s subtle and nuanced exposure with a sophistication that’s pervasive, and infiltration that glides into kids’ emotional touchpoints and triggers…

Next up? Shaping Youth’s stance (and my own personal views) as a writer/producer on the FCC product integration rulings…My fellow child advocacy consortium members may or may not agree with the Writer’s Guild of America point of view, but frankly, as a writer myself, I’m VERY reticent to advocate a ‘real time’ snipe/disclosure per this Hollywood Reporter piece as it’s cluttered and distracting taking the viewer out of the storyline completely.

More on my writer’s take on the FCC notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and notice of inquiry (NOI) —including industry’s response and thoughts on key questions that need asking…

As always, there are many views worthy of considering but if we all use common sense we should be able to reach parity; I’m just thrilled the FCC is listening. Can you hear me now?

Stay tuned for Part 3…mobile, digital, and embedded branding in games.

Related Articles

Arstechnica: Reform groups want FCC to take on product placement epidemic

Timeline of events regarding the FCC and integrated marketing issues

Letter from 23-member child advocacy coalition (including Shaping Youth) to the FCC

CCFC coalition response to FCC procedure on product integration

Writers Guild urges FCC to disclose product integration

iTVX: Product placement news and measurement

Visual Credits: Scrapblog newsletter, Customers Rock site, Six Flags site, Steve Spangler Science Seminars



  1. Amy – You couldn’t be more wrong in your view of me and the teacher training workshops we offer through Steve Spangler Science.

    As a teacher, I have always been sensitive to speakers and trainers who use the platform to pitch product. There’s nothing worse than paying for a commercial. That’s why I go to extreme measures to make sure that every activity and demo I can be either made at home or purchased from a number of sources on the Internet. I continually tell teachers to “Google” a product if they’re interested in making a purchase. If a teacher decides to make a purchase from Steve Spangler Science, I’m honored… but it’s important to understand that no one is forced to purchase ANYTHING from my company in order to recreate the science activities presented in any of our workshops.

    You’ve purchased from our company in the past, Amy, but I don’t see that you’ve ever attended one of my seminars. I’d recommend that you try it before you bash it.

  2. Piper Allen says

    I am a teacher who uses Steve Spangler Science as a resource. You obviously have not spent anytime on their website. They have tons of experiment ideas. They are all written up and make it very easy to re-create the experience for the classroom. The videos are great and I often use them in my classroom when supplies are not readily available or I am looking for a quite tie-in for the kids. All of this is FREE!!!!!! I have been to several of Steve Spangler’s workshops. He has NEVER pushed product or anything that would increase his revenue stream. He is a great educator. You should spend some time doing the research before you jump on something you obviously know nothing about.
    From a teacher who loves what Steve Spangler and his company are doing for science education. — Piper

  3. Um…calm down, Steve and Piper, I did not mean to offend, I am a HUGE fan of Steve Spangler’s Science and use his kits regularly!!!

    I order product for Xmas, clubs, tween parties, all kinds of stuff…and have also ordered through schools and teachers I work with for after school projects…

    I think you misunderstood my point…it is a FOR PROFIT company, which is branded. Period.

    They DO give away knowledge for FREE, just like APPLE…(to teachers, just like Apple is to the camp for kids) and there is absolutely NO harm there…Steve has given full disclosure of his brand. I LOVE his work…and I use his products regularly. But let’s be clear…they ARE products. And when teachers see how they can use his experiments to light up kids, they’ll either order the kits for convenience or duplicate them, in the case of the freebie finds, and no doubt pay it forward with word of mouth for great gift ideas for regular consumers…There is NO problem with this! This is how rev gen works for sustainability.

    And YES, he IS a great educator, and he’s also a smart marketer and promoter, or he wouldn’t be getting the word out as well as he is, on talk shows, the internet and hither and yon.

    Everyone knows he’s a cool science guy and is doing great things for science education, and he brands his products WITH that reputation for quality, just as Disney brands their ‘family values’ in the park…

    You KNOW what you’re getting, as he’s been up front and transparent about his passion for science and his company’s ability to fulfill the fun factor. Brand is not a bad word, you know…

  4. Piper Allen says

    Calm down? I was just responding to your statement about overt vs. covert. Steve posted your comment on a teacher blog this morning and asked anyone to comment about his presentations (if in fact they really attended one). You’re right, there’s nothing wrong with marketing, especially when it’s done by someone or some company that does it in a respectful way. If I pay to listen to a speaker, I don’t expect to have to buy something else to get value out of what I just heard. If I want to purchase additional workbooks or tapes (or cool science stuff like Spangler has), I can do it – but I don’t have to in order to get value out of the workshop.

  5. Julie Gintzler says

    Amy – Obviously you have used some of the science products that Steve Spangler offers, but that is not what your blog post was about. What you have posted about Steve Spangler Science was nothing short of company bashing. Have you attended any of the workshops put on by Steve Spangler Science? NO! If you had you would be ashamed of what you posted. One of the topmost priorities of every Steve Spangler Science workshop presenter is to make certain all attendees are able to recreate every experiment without purchasing a single products from Steve Spangler Science. There is NO marketing ploy here! Would you like to know how I know this? I have actually attended the workshops! Would you like to know how I can GUARANTEE this? I am one of the workshop presenters that you just INSULTED!!!!!
    As an teacher of 20 years and a current workshop presenter for Steve Spangler Science, I take particular insult to your accusations concerning the workshops I present. So it is time you stepped down from your soap box and started writing about things you have experienced first hand. You have insulted me, but more importantly you have insulted the thousands of educators that have attended our workshops. In essence you have told them that they are not smart enough to see past a marketing ploy (especially since it does not exist – with the exception of the one you have fabricated in your blog)

    Our workshops give REAL support to REAL teachers who live and work in the REAL world. We respect our attendees and would never force our products on them.
    I am certain your readers are smart enough to see the difference between your opinion and the facts. You give people far to little credit.

  6. I have just written a note to the comment folks above, asking them to ‘call off the watchdogs’ for clearly social media has a way of creating a ‘rallying cry’—

    I had no idea that this was posted on a teacher’s blog requesting comments, so please, folks, note the misunderstanding and clarity (logo moved from the phrase about ‘moving product’ that clearly drew ire…)

    I completely AGREE with Piper that workshops can add value whether you buy a dab of ANYthing…and I was TRYING to simply point out that his full transparency was to be applauded…NOT to ‘insult’ anyone…Hopefully, my added paragraph clarified that, using my own experience with Camp Galileo…

    Though I must say, disclosure-wise, Julie, above…you indeed have a Steve e-mail so I’m sure you certainly WERE offended as a presenter/teacher/employee whatever.

    Again, folks, no soap box, trying to elucidate what constitutes branding infiltration at multiple levels and the difference therein.

    Just because you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you’re aware of the branding coming at you…Let’s look at in-school “fitness promotions” from Coke that are ‘unbranded’ by name, but chatted up via word of mouth and teacher freebies.

    Let’s look at the free materials provided to you and used in classrooms with branding up the wazoo…including entire curriculum-based corporate sponsored educational materials.

    Let’s look at Scholastic Books and the infiltration of licensed-characters into branded book fairs moving merchandise instead of literacy value.

    Let’s look at Club Penguin, National Geographic, Time for Kids, and multiple other brands with sponsored messages filtering into teaching text, like “Toyota’s Road to Reading” which I found in my daughter’s 4th grade homework assignment way back when. (yes, in TIME mag’s kids version)

    I’ll be doing full features on ‘this SCHOOL is sponsored by’ in the fall…so I’ll simply say for now, please understand my goal is edification, not insult.

    And I repeat, branding is NOT a bad word… 😉

  7. Amy – Thanks for the clarification. Your rewrite on the original post this morning clarifies your point. Thanks.

  8. Thank you so much Steve, for understanding my attempt at clarification…

    Again, I try to wield my words wisely and certainly do my ‘homework’ but sometimes the juxtaposition of a phrase or a visual lands on folks’ sideways. I thank you for drawing attention to it, as it ALSO made me insert the fact that the Beaches Resorts DO promote their camps upfront too…in case that might’ve been a clarity for people too!

    I’m unaccustomed to my words carrying such ‘weight’ but these days, with the internet and social media influencers out there it’s becoming readily apparent that our little nonprofit is now ‘media’ in itself.

    So PLEASE DO yell loudly whenever I am off-base or misrepresenting a brand’s intention…

    I try to be fair, always.

  9. To see really exciting new multimedia literacy try out Inanimate Alice. … its a free online resource! More an interactive piece of fiction than a traditional game, Inanimate Alice: Episode 4 continues the story of the young game animator as she leaves her home in Russia and travels abroad. Inanimate Alice serves as both entertainment and a peek into the future of literature as a fusion of multimedia technologies. The haunting images and accompanying music and text weave a remarkably gripping tale that must be experienced to be believed.

    And better still for schools there is a piece of software now available that allows learners to create their own stories. Valuable for all forms of literacy and this is being sold as a perpetual site licence for schools at £99 !

  10. Alan…I always like to hear about new e-learning modules, especially creative ones…so even though this is written in ‘promo copy’ spammer mode, I’ll check it out indeed.

    Thanks for the ping, sounds intriguing…And um…yes, I think you just used ‘product placement’ in my blog. 😉 Oh, the irony…

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