Paying celebrities big money to appear in a commercial is nothing new. But how often do consumers collectively spend $15.5 million to watch one? The did this last weekend and Pepsi must be delighted.

The commercial wasn't a 60-second TV spot. Instead, it was a 103-minute movie called Uncle Drew, based on the series of YouTube videos with five-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving in heavy makeup and prosthetics as a 70-something who, oddly enough, happens to be great at basketball. Here's a little reminder of the original.

And here's the trailer for the movie.

The idea of making money off promotions may seem crazy, but only if you don't know the history of media and marketing. When radio was the major broadcast medium, programs were essentially owned by the sponsors. But they often were wildly successful entertainment programs that kept mentioning the companies, often incorporating theminto the context of comedy shows.

Originally, television had the same format. Ever hear of the Hallmark Channel? The name is no mistake, as it's owned by the card company. Transformers? The whole franchise started with toys. Same with cartoons for the Care Bears, G.I. Joe, and Masters of the Universe. Classic kids' shows like Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales were created as ways to market cereal.

What all of these have in common with Uncle Drew is the power of narrative. People are hard-wired to love stories. We've taught through stories for millennia. We listened to stories for entertainment and a chance to examine life in a new way long before Homer told the Iliad and Odyssey as epic oral stories.

Narrative is at the heart of content marketing. Brands are urged to tell their own stories, except often the stories are fabricated and of interest only to the brand and the agencies selling them the story-telling services.

That's why Uncle Drew works. It goes back to an old format of ad-owned narrative. The stories aren't about the brands because, really, for the most part, who cares?

Instead, Uncle Drew is about Uncle Drew and his all-star crew. There's product placement galore, of course. But the story is elsewhere. As critic Michael Phillips says in the Chicago Tribune:

Somehow, as corny and predictable as it is, and even with a tsunami of product placement, it works. It's pretty funny; it's pretty charming; it's good-natured. And as a bonus, it's neither a "Star Wars" nor a Marvel movie.

Is it a smash hit? No, but it didn't have to be. According to Variety, the powers behind the movie hoped it would make between $10 million and $13 million in its first weekend to help offset a sub-$20 million budget before marketing. And any marketing ultimately works to Pepsi's advantage, so it's a win for a marketing campaign.

Instead, it came in at over $15.5 million. Of the audience, which skewed male, 39 percent was African-American, 32 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian. (The missing few percent was listed as "other.")

Still good enough to make it the number four movie behind movies like Jurassic World and Incredibles 2 and still be ahead of Ocean's 8.

Not bad for an ad. A lot of marketers should give a thought to what types of "stories" they want to promote and how to do it.

Published on: Jul 2, 2018