It’s widely believed that branded entertainment has its origins in the radio soap operas of the 1930s and the television soap operas of the 1950s.

Actually they go back even further than that.

According to “From Hawthorne to Hard-Sell: Radio Advertising and How It Got That Way” by Elizabeth McLeod, it was AT&T that established the branded content category in 1922 when it began building a new radio station in New York.

From AT&T’s initial press release:

“The American Telephone and Telegraph Company will provide no program of its own, but provide the channels thru which anyone with whom it makes a contract can send out their own programs…There have been many requests for such a service, not only from newspapers and entertainment agencies but also from department stores and a great variety of business houses who wish to utilize this means of distribution.”

Means of distribution, maybe. Means of marketing, not so much. When Gimbels department store sponsored a dance orchestra program, it got only an opening and closing announcement that the music was presented courtesy of Gimbels.

Browning King and Company, a clothing firm, took the next major step, McLeod writes.

On April 25th, the Browning King Dance Orchestra went on the air, under the direction of Anna C. Byrnes. Like the earlier Gimbels program, no direct advertising was permitted — not even a mention of what business Browning King was in. But the company’s name was attached to the orchestra — which had been contracted to broadcast exclusively for Browning King, and no other firm. For the first time, entertainers and a sponsor would be formally linked. With this development, radio advertising had begun to assume the shape that it would retain for the rest of the 1920s.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we have programs like City Hunters, an animated TV series produced by AXE Body Spray, and BMW’s The Hire, a series of eight short films produced for the Internet.

A long way from the Browning King Dance Orchestra. But playing the same tune.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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