Ads as Content: Ford’s “Escape My Life” Series

January 10, 2013
By | 3 Comments

TV viewership is down across the board, from broadcast to cable, and even including sports (commonly considered immune to ratings shifts).  This is not news, of course – we’ve all been hearing (and talking) about new viewing patterns developed in the wake of DVRs, the internet, and mobile platforms for over a decade now.  But as live TV viewership continues to decline, advertisers are ever more interested in developing marketing strategies that are not tied to the television set.  Rather than create advertising that looks like the same 30-second spots that have been running on TV since the 1960s, ad agencies and their clients have sought out new formats and new platforms for their brands.  Sometimes these “new” strategies are based on “old” strategies such as sponsorship and product placement.  Sometimes the strategy is to develop a “destination” ad – one that consumers will actually seek out on their own accord.  And, increasingly, the strategy is to develop branded entertainment  more similar to content than advertisement.

One example of this “ad-as-content” strategy is Ford’s “Escape My Life” web series.  Debuting in September 2012, “Escape My Life” is an 8-episode series (available on YouTube, Hulu, and other online venues) featuring comedians Natasha Leggero and Jo Lo Truglio.  In the series, Leggero plays Skylar, a Hollywood costume designer who desperately needs a new car.  On the advice of a friend, she decides to take part in a marketing program (ostensibly sanctioned by Ford) in which Hollywood types can get a new Ford Escape for free.  (The friend calls it “Product placement in real life.”)  In the suspicious-looking office of the program head, she signs a sheaf of papers without reading them, and happily drives her new Escape home – only to be confronted with socially maladjusted Barry (Truglio) upon arrival.  You see, it appears that by signing that stack of papers she didn’t read, she agreed to let Barry go with her everywhere to show her how to use the Escape’s features, and to (eventually) document and blog about his experiences with Skylar and the SUV.  Hijinks ensue as the two try to live with one another throughout the series.

What’s interesting about “Escape My Life” is that the series ultimately spends only a small portion of its time on the Escape itself.  Each episode features one or two brief mentions of the SUV’s features – from the Sync system to the roomy interior to the hands-free foot-activated gate lift – and each concludes with a 15-second ad highlighting those features.  Aside from that, however, the SUV operates as a backdrop for the action more than the star of the series.  According to Ford, this was, in fact, the primary motivation behind the series.  In a press release, Ford’s Digital Marketing manager Brock Winger claims, “We are not talking at them, we are showing them the Escape and how it is used in daily life.”

But I argue that it’s more complicated than that.  There is absolutely no denying that the series functions as an advertisement for the Escape, and I certainly don’t think that any audience member would be fooled into thinking otherwise.  But perhaps that’s simply part of its charm.  As Fast Company’s Joe Berkowitz notes, the series is particularly notable for the fact that it functions as a meta-commentary on marketing itself, as the drama centers around Ford’s deployment of a new “real-life product placement” marketing campaign.  In his analysis, Berkowitz contends, “In acknowledging how annoying it is when you’re forced to watch an ad that’s trying not to be an ad, the ad-based show becomes instantly more accessible.”

Compared to a traditional ad campaign, the series might not seem a major success – the first episode has been viewed around 240,000 times on YouTube, with the rest averaging 30,000-40,000 views.  Even a weak cable channel has far more viewers.  But the difference, of course, is that those who came to watch “Escape My Life” online sought it out, were thus more likely to watch it closely, and probably left with a higher degree of brand message recall than the average viewer of a 30-second spot.  (Certainly I now know much more about the features of the Ford Escape than I did before watching the series, and I rather enjoyed myself while consuming the ads, too!)  As Ford’s Winger notes, “The series reaches out to consumers where they are at in their media consumption behaviors – we are not interrupting them and forcing them to go somewhere else or stop what they are doing in order to watch and enjoy the content.”  And this, I contend, is key to the “ad-as-content” strategy: as audiences migrate away from live TV viewing and advertisers become increasingly concerned about how to get their messages out, series like “Escape My Life,” which invite viewers to engage more directly and deeply with a brand (while being entertained!), might just be the wave of the future.


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3 Responses to “ Ads as Content: Ford’s “Escape My Life” Series ”

  1. Greg on January 10, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    I am the creative director who worked on this (and anything I say here is me talking. I don’t represent Ford or the ad agency), and I think your analysis is astute, Erin. There is a parallel to that old 50s content model: watchable, entertaining content (I’d argue that should always be a mandate, but I digress :)), produced by a single sponsor. Think “Colgate Comedy Hour”.

    The industry is a weird place right now, because our collective attitude toward media is so schizophrenic. TV bring different expectations about propriety and transparency than the web does, and so traditional TV spots can still be produced with an understanding that there’ll be a suspension of disbelief. It’s a more forgiving medium.

    The web is of course, not that way. Anyone can beat anyone else in the content creation game: you can’t assume anyone gives a crap enough to watch your stuff to the end. Too often, traditional advertising sees being interesting as a luxury… which is stupid. Like Howard Gossage said “People read (or in this case watches) what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

    Consciously trying to be interesting, useful, funny… trying to be something that someone was glad to experience, I think that is where advertising is headed. It has to!

    As far as where people watched this content, YouTube was actually a small part of the story. The episodes were syndicated across the web. YouTube merely served as a central hub. Without going into numbers and success measures, the content did pretty well.

    • Erin Copple Smith on January 10, 2013 at 3:56 PM

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation, Greg! I appreciated hearing your take on the strategy, and the insight into the logics which govern its deployment!

      It seems to absolutely be the case that the future of advertising relies, in part, on creating what I call “destination ads” in the post here. As the article linked to above (hyperlink: “seek out”) indicates, the most popular ads on a hub like YouTube garner an incredible number of views–and from folks who are actively looking for them, and are thus more likely to watch them (a) in their entirety, (b) with rapt attention, and (c) repeatedly. I can think of no better ad strategy than creating that type of content!

      Glad to hear the campaign did well–it can be rather difficult, as a scholar, to uncover the “real” numbers or metrics of this stuff. Though I watched the series on YouTube, I was first exposed to it (repeatedly) during ad breaks during a couple of my favorite Zynga iPhone games!

      Thanks again for commenting–you made my week (month?)!

  2. Cynthia B. Meyers on January 10, 2013 at 8:13 PM

    Great post (as always)! Your point about the meta-commentary on marketing is spot on!

    The TV industry continues to go on and on about how forced viewing of linear ads is just fine and advertisers should keep paying for all that wasted exposure, etc. But they had better watch out! Advertisers, like Ford in this case, are looking for alternatives, and some of those alternatives are going to be interesting content. Likewise, content creators, although most of them assume they need the layers of TV network executives to “protect” them from the corruptions of advertising, are beginning to see some advertisers as the funders of creative freedom (shameless plug of my blog:

    And as Greg points out so clearly, there is also a legacy media industry assumption that forced exposure means that ads don’t have to be interesting. Given audience mobility today, that’s like assuming that the sun goes around the earth! (

    Ford looks smart, no?