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Episodic Advertising: Better Bread and Butter

Eric Oldrin explores the opportunities offered by episodic advertising on the Internet.

In the world of the independent studio, advertising is often the bread and butter. That original pilot or short film is financed by picking up commercial work along the way. It can be a frustrating reality, distracting from what we really want to do but every once in a while, an opportunity comes along with the right brand, the right agency, the right budget to create something rewarding.

On the Internet, advertising has always been a struggle. Technical limitations, mediocre creative, and razor thin budgets have marginalized projects to banner ads and gratuitous Websites. However, there is an opportunity for animators on the Web they dont often find in broadcast: episodic advertising. With the right campaign, an animated series can be powerful messaging tool and a lot of fun.

The Right Campaign

In a sense, all good advertising is episodic. A brand is an identity that evolves over time, building character and story. However, some campaigns can benefit by deepening a brand with a series. This is not a collection of one-off spots, with recurring characters like the M&M commercials or the Trix rabbit. These are narratives with a beginning, middle and end. Campaigns with a story to tell and a specific messaging objective should consider using episodic advertising.

A new brand can use a series of animated shorts to share its origin story. Why should consumers care about yet another clothing line? Is there something about the founders or their focus that can be communicated through narrative? With entertainment advertising, an emerging brand has a unique opportunity to present its case. A story is more emotional, more sincere than traditional marketing and it is well suited for new brand campaigns.

An existing brand can use episodic advertising to strengthen a tired message. The same emotional impact that benefits new brands helps strengthen an old brand. However, the risks are higher with an existing brand. When a story is invented, there is a history to consider. Not all of these campaigns can use episodic advertising and if they do, the work will be challenging.

Brands in transition are ideal candidates for an episodic series. There is often a story behind a change -- a merger, an expansion, a shift in strategy. Narrative can be a powerful tool in communicating this transition to a brands existing and potential customer base. Perhaps they would like to reassure stockholders or consumers that despite the changes, they still hold the same core values. Or perhaps the change is a shift in focus, an expansion on the past. Either way, a narrative series can help reveal a brands spirit and build confidence.

As well see in our case study, maintaining this confident connection is essential. A narrative has all the natural elements to do this -- character, emotion, conflict and resolution. But first, lets look at some of the practical advantages to episodic advertising on the Internet.

The Right Price

It would be difficult to produce a series of episodic advertisements for broadcast. The cost is prohibitive. However, a web-based production is less expensive and if executed correctly, can be re-purposed for broadcast. Also, when advertising is wrapped inside an animated, entertainment experience, the audience has the potential to expand dramatically, as episodes are sent from friend to friend.

Flash is the de facto animation tool for the Web. Skilled studios can create beautiful high-quality productions with small files sizes and reasonable budgets. This allows an advertiser to consider a series rather than a single commercial, to create a narrative experience rather than a marketing message.

Of course, there is a particular type of audience on the Internet. Some brands are not positioned for a viral, episodic series of Flash animations, but companies pursuing the trend setting demographic often look to the Web for their connection. By using Flash animation, they can leverage inexpensive, viral content into broadcast-quality commercials. Thats what our case study did, with great success.


In branding the new Napster, the company takes a note from its rebellious past. Images © Napster.

Napster: A Case Study

Mekanism is a design and production studio that develops story-driven advertising, bridging broadcast and digital media. It recently won AdWeeks Best Ad Spot of 2003 for an episodic series of advertisements, supporting the re-launch of, the infamous music-swapping service.

Working with agency Venables, Bell & Partners, the creatives at Mekanism had quite a challenge. Napster was a brand in transition, moving from underground music maverick to mainstream subscription service. They had to appeal to their original audience, re-kindle awareness, and convince them to purchase music that used to be free.

Their solution? Tell Napsters story, an epic chronicle of the rise, fall and rebirth of a product that revolutionized music. They brought the Napster logo to life in a series of short animations. From hospital deathbed to an unlikely partnership with the record industry, we follow the Napster kitty through his incredible rebirth. The spots are entertaining in-and-of-themselves, regardless of the marketing. They have character, emotional substance and artistic integrity, a great example of episodic advertising.

They debuted online with traffic from, building anticipation before the companys rebirth and raising awareness among the younger influencer market. According to Napster, the online animations were viewed more than a million times during the summer pre-launch period.

As soon as the launch arrived, four of the Flash animations were quickly edited into :15 and :30 second broadcast spots, at a fraction of the traditional cost and began airing on MTV, VH1, Fox, USA Networks, Comedy Central and ESPN.

From Web to broadcast, Mekanism successfully told the Napster story. It would have been very difficult to communicate this transition using a single ad spot. But over time, through a series of animations they found a more subtle voice, a more authentic message and a narrative connection.

In a world of bread and butter commercial work, episodic advertising may provide some relief, allowing independent studios to keep those creative juices flowing, even when theyre not working on their masterpiece.

Eric Oldrin is a freelance producer from San Francisco, living in Cape Town. His current project is a clay animated short, inspired by South Africas first decade of democracy.