Branded Reality: The Rise of Embedded Branding (‘Branded Content’): Implications for the Cultural Public Sphere

Balint, Anat. 2016. Branded Reality: The Rise of Embedded Branding (‘Branded Content’): Implications for the Cultural Public Sphere. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis explores the rise of embedded branding (‘branded content’) since the early 2000s, a funding model in which sponsors are integrated into media content. It examines its implications for the functioning of the media as a cultural public sphere. Located within the political economy approach, the research takes a critical perspective, arguing that ‘branded content’ is, in Habermasian terms, an act of manipulation.

Two case studies of British and Israeli reality television shows were used to explore three questions: 1. How does the ‘branded content’ market work? 2. Are we witnessing a new phase of content commercialisation and if so, what are its characteristics? 3. What are the implications for the media’s functioning as a cultural public sphere and, consequently, how should regulators and policy makers cope with the phenomenon?

The findings uncover a niche market in which branded content agents facilitate formal agreements between sponsors and producers. As both sides have the need to look for alternative funding models in a growingly fragmented reality, these co-operations typically start as ‘synergetic’, however their implementation often becomes rife with conflict.

The data further suggests sponsors influence media content in two key ways. First, through ‘deep integration’: brands appearing through abstract and surreptitious representations in programming (rather than ‘classic’ product placement). Second, through ‘continuous integration’: the tendency of these agreements to encompass multiple platforms, and predominantly the Internet, which enables personal data collection. Embedded branding therefore should be seen as a new commercialisation phase, typical of the digital age, in which brands gain omnipresence in the cultural public sphere.

The two main potential harms caused by these developments are first, the saturation of the media with manipulative messages by sponsors, which distorts the editorial process and threatens freedom of expression. The second relates to the gradual loss of audience trust in the media as a platform for public debate, which is the gravest threat ‘branded content’ presents to the role of the media in democracies.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Branded reality, embedded branding, branded content, content commercialisation, deep integration, continuous integration, manipulative messages, audience trust, cultural public sphere

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


31 July 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

04 Aug 2016 16:12

Last Modified:

12 Sep 2022 11:11


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