Is It the Brand or the Entertainment?

Publicis chairman and CEO Maurice Lévy attended Microsoft’s annual client summit in Seattle this week, accompanied by two heads of Publicis subsidiaries: Digitas’ David Kenny and David Droga, who runs creative shop Droga5. The three were there to announce HoneyShed, a site set to launch this summer that will provide nothing but branded entertainment.

“It’s about celebrating the sell” is the most widely reported description of the still under-wraps site, rumored to count Viacom, Condé Nast, and Microsoft among its content partners.

Publicis’ announcement coincided with a very soft launch of perhaps the most powerful example to date of Web-based branded entertainment.

This week, Apple’s year-old “Get a Mac” TV campaign, created by TBWA, quietly went into Web-only mode. Flash-based banner ads featuring mini versions of the now familiar “Hello, I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC.” spots started appearing on sites such as Wired.com and Buy.com. PCMag.com is even running a site-specific ad in which a smugly satisfied PC, sensing he’s on home turf, is deflated when he learns the publication has “said some really great things about Macs.”

These new online ads smoothly make a transition into new episodes of Apple’s long-running TV campaign, in banner rather than video format. The ads even subtly reference their new environment. The characters interact with the margins of the banners, enter and leave the frame, and address the audience.

Typically, neither Apple nor TBWA announced the new online campaign component. They didn’t have to. Audiences are already familiar with “Get a Mac” from nearly two dozen TV spots, which also reside on Apple’s Web site. There are nearly 1,000 results for a “get a mac” search on YouTube. The campaign even merits its own Wikipedia entry. The blogs that track Apple have been bursting with the news all week. One even took the trouble to transcribe the dialogue.

Their readers are spreading the meme. They’re making the Flash files available for download. At least one banner has been reverse-engineered and posted on YouTube as a video. Reports list sightings of the ads on new sites running the campaign (the banners aren’t posted on Apple’s site). Reviews, both positive and negative, are popping up across the Web.

What Has Mac Got?

“Get a Mac” may not be a hard sell, as HoneyShed intends to be. Because of that, it’s a shining, high-engagement (whatever that means) example of branded entertainment. The campaign follows a very familiar model: the television sitcom.

In the classic template of such shows as “The Odd Couple,” “Moonlighting,” and even “Tom and Jerry,” the episodes feature two clearly defined — and clearly diametric — characters. The scripts have a beginning, middle, and end narrative structure. There are occasional guest stars (e.g., Gisele Bündchen) and sundry supporting characters. Episodes occasionally deal with topical issues, such as the release of Vista.

Like successful sitcoms, “Get a Mac” has inspired a wide variety of parodies and tributes in popular culture, including this one from “South Park.” Advertisers are piggybacking on the campaign’s success and recognizability factor. Novell, for example, aped the format to promote Linux. Scholars and psychologists have even tackled the phenomenon.

The consistency of the characters is where “Get a Mac” differs from its predecessor, the Switch campaign. The earlier effort spawned parodies as well and accorded Ellen Feiss more than 15 minutes of fame, but the episodes tended more toward the documentary than the new campaign’s direct sitcom approach. Moreover, the characters differed in each installment.

“Get a Mac” launched in May of last year in the U.S., U.K., and Japan. New episodes have been released at a fairly steady pace (c. 24 videos to date). Their viral appeal is easily leveraged; all the spots are available on Apple’s Web site.

The bottom line is not only do people like “Get a Mac,” but the campaign seems to be working. Recent research from both Visual Sciences (two days ago, still called WebSideStory) and NetApplications.com indicate Apple’s online Web presence has nearly doubled in the past eight months, from 3 percent (a figure that’s barely budged since 1999) to 6 percent. This figure corresponds nicely to the campaign’s duration.

“Get a Mac” celebrates features, functionality, values, lifestyle, and image — all with great consistency.

What doesn’t it celebrate? The sell.

Meet Rebecca at the ClickZ Specifics: E-mail Marketing seminar on May 14 in San Francisco and at the ClickZ Specifics: Advertising in Social Media seminar on May 21 in New York.

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