It’s not product placement. It’s not sponsored content. It’s prestige television.
Activate, a six-part documentary series that premieres Thursday on National Geographic Channel, features celebrities such as music producer Pharrell Williams, rapper Common, and actors Darren Criss and Uzo Aduba, and highlights the work of grassroots activists ending cash bail, eradicating plastic pollution, and more.
The series, which takes viewers from the Philippines to Peru to Nigeria, is beautifully shot, and the activists are passionate and sincere. One aim of the project is to inspire others to do their part to end poverty and save the planet, says Hugh Evans, CEO of Global Citizen, which is coproducing Activate.
Each installment also includes information about how Procter & Gamble, an underwriter of the series, is addressing the theme of the episode. The segment on keeping girls in school, for example, features the work that Always, Whisper, and Orkid—P&G’s feminine protection brands—are doing to provide puberty education in emerging market countries. P&G “is genuinely committed to putting social good at the center of their business model,” says Evans. “Activate was a logical extension of that model.”
The marketing world is closely watching Activate and other projects like it: Cincinnati-based P&G is one of the largest advertisers in the world, spending $2.9 billion in the U.S. last year. If corporations find it more effective to fund—and play a supporting role in—documentaries and narrative storytelling, it would whipsaw an industry that’s struggling to engage audiences and win their loyalties. “The scale and breadth of [Activate] is unprecedented,” admits Marc S. Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer.
Evans says Global Citizen and Radical Media, a production studio with expertise in documentaries and branded entertainment, jointly came up with the idea for Activate as a way to showcase Global Citizen’s different social-good campaigns while leveraging the nonprofit’s relationships with entertainers and artists. (Each year the group stages the Global Citizen Festival, an event in New York’s Central Park that features major musical acts and leaders responding to Global Citizen’s campaigns with commitments to help the world’s poor; Pharrell Williams is performing this year.)
In early 2017 the producing partners pitched the idea to National Geographic. “NatGeo was interested in collaborating with a brand [that] could elevate the scale and reach of the mission,” says Jon Kamen, chairman and CEO of Radical Media.
The following year talks began with P&G, which already had relationships with Radical Media, Global Citizen, and National Geographic. The resulting flight of programming features a P&G corporate or brand representative in every episode: Damon Jones, the company’s vice president of global communications and advocacy, appears as an expert in the documentary on criminal justice reform; P&G’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water nonprofit figures into the clean water segment.
But branding chief Pritchard says it was vital for the content creators to maintain editorial control of the material. “Nine out of 10 consumers feel that if a brand supports a cause [they believe in], they’ll support that brand,” he says. “But consumers are looking very carefully at whether those brands are authentic, that they’re really walking the walk.”
Global Citizen’s Evans thinks Activate will become a model for other companies and brands looking to move away from traditional marketing efforts such as commercial spots in favor of initiatives with greater social impact. “Instead of just sending cars around a racetrack really fast,” he says, “you can inspire someone to become the next Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg.”