TV and marketing is not a new partnership. Be it The Flintstones shilling cigarettes, detergent brands terming ‘soap operas’, or the more recent example of James Bond’s signature martini losing out to a bottle of Heineken, TV advertising is almost as old as the medium itself.

But with traditional TV advertising losing its appeal, more brands are looking to Advertiser Funded Programming (AFP) – where brands control the content itself instead of merely funding it – as a viable alternative.

With some notable examples attracting attention recently, and the continuing success of written advertorial content, speculation has begun over whether AFP could be the future of TV, and thus the next progression for native advertising.

So, the downfall of any advertising without a share button has been predicted for a long time, but is AFP the answer?

First, let’s take a step back. What exactly is AFP?

AFP is programming that is financed, marketed and, crucially, produced with the support of a corporate brand. This editorial influence is the crucial detail, as unlike traditional sponsorship where brands pay for an association with content, AFP allows brands enough control to tell their story in its entirety.

Marketers have long been aware of the influence of television and the opportunity to promote products that comes with it. And this is not an opportunity that’s been overlooked, with traditional commercials and product placement part and parcel in the industry.

Although it has been around for decades, the definition of AFP has changed over time. According to the current guideline definition, AFP is creating a programme where a brand message is so deeply ingrained that a) the programme cannot exist without the brand message, and b) the brand message doesn’t blur or devalue the programme’s integrity as a media product. A fine line to tread but the appeal is clear for those who get it right.

AFP in action

There have been a few notable AFP success stories over the years, such as Carlsberg’s hidden-camera stunt in 2014 for Danish TV Zulu BBF, where the Nordic brewers enlisted people to play pranks on their friends designed to test the strength of the pair’s friendship – only to watch it back together afterwards over a Carlsberg, of course.

Or we could look at the The Little Big Cook Off (backed by South African Dairy company, Clover), which was a family cooking show that reversed the role of advertiser and broadcaster to put their products centre stage.

Most recently, and perhaps notably, General Electric collaborated with the iconic American institution, Saturday Night Live, to produce a sketch which was, by most accounts, positively received.

So, if AFP advertising is nothing new, why is it popular again?

The two biggest reasons behind this resurgence are;

  • The Golden Age of Native Advertising

We’re seeing a golden age of native advertising in publishing at the moment. With an unprecedented amount of content now produced, there has never been so many outlets available to collaborate with.

Marketing spend in the medium has hit an all-time high with output set to continue to grow at a rapid pace, as more and more publishers are willing to cross the advertising/editorial divide.

The pull is obvious. Native ads allow brands the space and creativity to reach customers in a meaningful way by teaming up with their favourite news and entertainment sites. But now, more brands are looking to replicate the concept on TV, with many seeing it as the next medium in the evolution of native advertising.

  • The exaggerated decline of TV viewership

For years, TV has been the go-to format for campaign volume. But with the rise of streaming services and the continuously increasing number of ‘cord-cutters’, linear viewing was said to be in irreversible decline. While the viewership figures are waning, this decline appears to have been overstated.

By redrawing the definitions of viewership to account for digital consumption with their Total Audience Measurement tool, Nielsen has shown that TV is faring far better than previously predicted. Although viewing habits have changed with streaming and on-demand has helped watchers dodge traditional commercial breaks, the volume is largely still there for marketers willing to innovate to engage their audience.

So, does it all stack up? Is AFP the next step up in the evolution of native advertising?

No, not quite. The AFP success stories, considering the longevity of the format, have been relatively few and far between. To become a viable alternative for brands, and thus live up to the hype, potential and billing from some commentators – more consistency in quality and results is required. But is that possible?

I’m not so sure. Here’s why…

  • The loyalty isn’t there

All sponsorship works on the basis of expropriated legitimacy. Sponsored advertorial posts rely on the trust and reputation that an article from their host site has, tapping into the reader’s loyalty for that site and blending in with the regular content. For this to work it’s up to the website’s editorial staff to ensure the advertising brand and their content doesn’t jar with the house rules. Display adverts run on the same logic.

But with TV, no such platform loyalty exists. People aren’t loyal to stations – they’re committed to the programmes themselves, especially with digital channels allowing viewers to be even more selective.

It’s interesting to analyse the success of Saturday Night Live through this lens. The quasi-sketch show format it uses is more similar than most shows to that of a publishing website, with their series of short skits mirroring the articles on a site. This, combined with familiar celebrity faces and defined programme structure, is perhaps one of the main reasons it was such a hit.

  • Consistent quality is impossible to achieve

Native advertising must be handled with kid gloves, with sponsored content appearing sparingly. The editorial/advertorial ratio has to be upheld to maintain the legitimacy that props up the whole concept.

And any threat at a drift toward saturation will be rejected by consumers if high quality isn’t consistently achieved. This is a challenge that seasoned script-runners wrestle with, let alone marketers operating in a foreign field.

  • Cost

This point is ultimately the most straight-forward. The immense cost, and level of risk in the quality of the end product, effectively minimises the availability of the medium to the biggest companies. Whilst this has been prevalent since the introduction of published native advertising, the competitive market and consequent huge cost involved in producing something worthwhile (with no guarantee of quality or results) means that it’s unlikely to be readily adopted to the same extent.

The threat of ad blocking, on-demand programming and waning viewership forced marketers to react and adapt, rethinking fundamentally how they engage with their target customer base. And a natural starting point for this soul-searching expedition is to look to the past and see what has worked well before.

In this respect, it’s positive to see AFP employed as an innovative response to the general malaise surrounding television advertising. While occasional success stories will always be held up as victories, and rightly so given the immense work and craft involved, to expect a widespread implementation of AFP is unrealistic.

AFP has delivered excellent results in isolated incidents for sure, but the next major native advertising format?

That’s where I switch off.

Graham McEnroe

Graham McEnroe


Graham McEnroe is PR & Outreach Manager at Ve Interactive.