Team Player Short Film Review: How Not To Do Branded Content

Produced by McDowell's, this short film is a shining example of how brands often cross the fine line between blatant advertising and creative liberty
Team Player Short Film Review: How Not To Do Branded Content

Director: Heena D'Souza

Cast: Anshuman Jha, Vishwas Kini, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Shubhangi Latoria

Five minutes into this 5.1-minute short, I'm wondering why it even exists. Am I even the right demographic for an Amar-Chitra-Katha-ish film named 'Team Player'? Am I even the right set of species? Designed as a deceptively casual bro-dude buddy flick, it is about three aimless-looking guys who meet up for their daily Playstation session, and get into a "deeper" debate about the meaning of friendship and teamwork.

With actors like Anshuman Jha involved, you expect a little more. You'd think this moral-science lesson happened in a verbose, understated manner – but no, they even break into the world's most awkward and convoluted football game in the middle of their living room to prove some kind of enlightened point that eventually turns out to be the most literal metaphor in the history of humankind.

And in the last few seconds, the retarded simplicity of it all (sort of) makes sense. McDowell's No. 1 "soda" flashes across the screen, with that annoying "no. 1 yaari" ad jingle creeping its way into our vulnerable minds. A branded short – it had to be.

So I'm not really going to review this film. I'll take an opportunity to write about this trend of branded digital content. I understand that this is a necessity in today's fast-evolving web landscape. And it can make sense, too, in non-fictional content like celebrity interviews, feature pieces and snappy video spots. But with short films, one has to be a little more careful.

There is a fine line between blatant advertising and creative liberty, especially given the tired quality of the ad-film universe here (more of the blame here would lie with overzealous clients who think they "know" how to communicate as well as the storytellers they hire). Over the last year, of course, I've seen numerous shorts attempting to find a balance in this inherently tricky consumer template.

Films like Team Player are an example of how not to integrate the two worlds into a viewer-friendly experience. Though there is no physical branding, the "mood" promoted by the product is so benign that content of this sort just seems juvenile and self-explanatory – especially given the unending potential of the medium chosen. Surely, more can be done in five long minutes.

With there being a ban on "open" advertising for many alcohol brands, they have resorted to partnering with short film collectives and indie talent to promote their brands online. At least they're moving with the times.

Kingfisher Ultra got into the game recently. I reviewed their first short named Half Ticket – which, despite the incessantly corporate product-placement shots, managed to get us invested into the sweetness of its premise and two young, likeable protagonists. They were also one of the main brand partners of TVF's Pitchers – a very enjoyable entrepreneur-based web series that didn't force the product (everyone likes enjoying a beer at the same pub) down our unsuspecting throats. They even coined a catchphrase around beer without making us feel like total victims.

With there being a ban on "open" advertising for many alcohol brands, they have resorted to partnering with short film collectives and indie talent to promote their brands online

The beer's second short, Born Free, which I wrote about, was another example of how not to design branded content; by the end, the shameless plugs had superseded the forced moral construct of the film (a Ranbir-ish corporate stooge "finding himself" at a Goa-based presentation), presenting virtually nothing new in its bloated running time.

Terribly Tiny Talkies' have gotten better at it, as was evident recently with Srinivas Sunderrajan's Ola-branded short, Rear View, about a brooding passenger's emotional transition during his ride with a chatty driver. The brand seamlessly defined – without disrespecting our ability to digest commercial information – the union of the two conflicted characters. It was just a story that happened to take place in a car – a theme that resonates easily with today's urban working culture, where much of our time is spent between destinations.

Vicks' recent short, Generations of Care, directed by Masaan's Neeraj Ghaywan, was another fine example of how even a tiny memorable piece of content whose essence has virtually nothing to do with its brand can be far more effective than its insecure, spoon-feeding step cousins. It went viral, and for good reason. We remember it as "the Vicks film" (as opposed to the old-school "Vicks waala ad") and now use this term while recommending it to friends. That it otherwise has no definite title and is not a conventional film (more of a well-voiced montage) only helps its cause, making it impossible to otherwise describe the film as an independent entity.

Royal Stag Barrel Large Short Films, in stark contrast to the McDowell's attempt, is now a genre onto itself, too – promoting some of the best short-film talent across the country, relying solely on its slate as a "presenter" at the beginning of each film. Chutney, one of its recent shorts, is apparently the highest viewed film in the world with more than 100 million views. It will forever be a "Large Short," after all.

Needless to mention, there are no obvious plugs to this specific product, making this 'indirect' quality-focused advertising the only way to satisfy both, the brand and the filmmakers. Writers will flock to the brand, attracted by the promise of creative freedom, determined to sell their talents in ways that aren't restricted to "fitting in" specific demands and convoluted scenarios from the producers.

In a way, everyone is a "team player" in such setups. Perhaps the makers of this misguided short will catch onto the trend and identify the brands that truly understand this language. Not that there are many out there, but the last year or so has been an important one in this context. All we can do is look forward to this different brand of short-form cinema.

Watch Team Player here:

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