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Emerson Students Learn Branded Entertainment with Funny or Die

The task: come up with a concept to bring the public back into Chipotle’s burrito-and-guacamole-loving arms after its recent high-profile food scares. Seems challenging enough, but then you realize you need to add comedy in the mix—and then pitch your concept to a team of executives at the popular video website Funny or Die. The result: teams of three to four marketers, filmmakers, and other talent work feverishly to come up with a funny concept, perfect their pitches, and then find out whether the videos they envision will pass muster.

It’s not just another day at the Funny or Die offices. This kind of creative stimulation is taking place at Emerson College Los Angeles (ELA), among a group of students in the “Branded Entertainment: Creating for New Media with Funny or Die” class. Just like the class name implies, students—a mix of Marketing Communications and Visual and Media Arts (VMA) majors—get the opportunity to create branded digital concepts and then pitch them to the bigwigs at Funny or Die, receiving the kind of real-world feedback that’s invaluable to an impressionable college student. The partnership with Funny or Die is a natural step for Emerson College, which this fall began offering a first-of-its-kind specialized BFA in Comedic Arts.

“Students are learning how to collaborate with each other, how to pitch, how to construct branded content campaigns, and how to market and advertise that content,” said Manny Basanese, a visiting professor at ELA who teaches the branded entertainment class. “They’re getting this great professional feedback from Funny or Die, a top pioneer of branded web content. And the best part is the feedback is real and honest; they don’t coddle them.”

Emerson College Assistant Professor Manny Basanese. 

Take this creative concept for the hypothetical Chipotle pitch, for instance: Picture the tear-jerking Sarah McLachlan save-the-animals commercial, but just replace the animals with burritos. Adopt a burrito for $7. The feedback: something like that might be too much of a parody for a brand such as Chipotle dealing with a serious scandal.

“Just to hear from their experiences and get feedback on what they think works, it’s priceless,” said Alex “A.J.” Johnson ’17, a Visual and Media Arts major. “It’s like being able to learn basketball from an NBA player.”

Alex “A.J.” Johnson ’17 says he wants to enter the branded entertainment field after graduating from Emerson. 

Over the course of 14 weeks, ELA students will get the chance to explore the ever-expanding opportunities around digital media while developing branded digital concepts, ultimately producing a video of one of those concepts as part of a final project. Chris Bruss, president of digital content at Funny or Die, and Kellyn Parker, former vice president of partner content at Funny or Die, have helped to provide feedback on the concepts and pitches students like Johnson present in the Funny or Die offices. The class, much like branded entertainment itself, combines elements of production, marketing, and advertising.

“It’s important for an advertiser to reach an audience on their own terms, to offer content that is valuable to them,” said Parker, current vice president of original programming development at Comedy Central. “It’s really important to reach this audience of young viewers that has found its way around traditional advertising and that’s what branded entertainment helps to do.”

In recent years, branded content has surged in the digital landscape and become a powerful way to build awareness about and sell a product. Think of Dove’s Real Beauty video, which highlights the gap between how women perceive themselves and how other perceive them, or the viral Dumb Ways to Die campaign video, which was a public service announcement to promote rail safety.

Students in the “Branded Entertainment: Creating for New Media with Funny or Die” make their pitches to Funny or Die executives. 

A recent study conducted by IPG Media Lab found that brand recall is 59 percent higher for branded content than display and native ads and that consumers are 14 percent more likely to look for additional content from a company after a single impression of branded content. With branded content growing in popularity, offering a class on branded entertainment and pairing up with Funny or Die seemed like a natural step to Kevin Bright ’76, ELA’s founding director. 

“Funny or Die is a driving force in online comedy and has harnessed its unique brand of humor to become a leader in web-branded content,” said Bright. “Students in the Branded Entertainment class not only get to explore new avenues in digital media, but they also get to learn from leaders in the field who know how to make people laugh.”

Bright helped to usher the class along when he was introduced to Andrew Steele, P’19, creative director at Funny or Die. Steele was at first interested in offering students internship and other learning opportunities (ELA students have interned at Funny or Die for the past few semesters, including Fall 2016), but Bright—having already launched a successful class partnering with the renowned improvisational and sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade—had something bigger in mind. Steele helped to make it happen.

Jack Ganley '17 and Mariela Escuela '16.

“When I saw that we would get to work with Funny or Die that really caught my attention because I know them from their videos,” said Mariela Esculsa '16, a Marketing Communications major. “I love the fact that we get to collaborate with an actual company that does create branded entertainment because usually what we do in class is all hypothetical.”

Students have been taking advantage of the opportunities that taking a class with Funny or Die presents: attending special events, building connections, and helping out when the right gig presents itself. Jack Ganley ’17, a VMA major and Comedic Arts minor, reached out to Parker to let him know that he was staying in LA after graduating and was open to any opportunities. A few weeks later, Ganley found himself at a local studio at 6:00 am, working on a Funny or Die sketch set to air on the cable network Freeform.

Before taking the class, Ganley said he knew branded content was a thing, but didn’t necessarily know what it was called or how extensive it is in the business.

“After taking this class, I’m definitely keeping an eye out for opportunities in the field,” Ganley said. “It’s a really great way to exist in the business while still furthering your own voice and creativity.”

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