ESPN let guard down with film sponsorship

Earlier this month, ESPN debuted “Unguarded,” the story of Massachusetts basketball prodigy Chris Herren, whose battles with substance abuse dogged his college hoops and NBA careers.

The documentary, directed by Jonathan Hock, is an unflinching, often-riveting look at Herren’s struggles and his efforts to overcome them and reclaim his life. The film's Nov. 1 premiere was well-received, except for one false note: Given Herren’s demons, why was the documentary sponsored in part by whiskey maker Jameson?

The contrast between Herren’s scary stories of drug and alcohol abuse and that particular sponsorship made for a jarring juxtaposition -- and Twitterers, bloggers and readers who wrote to us wanted to know how ESPN could have been so insensitive.

The answer: It was a mistake, one ESPN moved quickly to correct.

According to ESPN, the network noticed tweets about the Jameson sponsorship the night of the film’s premiere, discussed the issue the next morning, and then pulled the whiskey maker’s “billboard” (the on-screen corporate logo and sponsorship message) from all subsequent airings. Only the premiere carried the Jameson sponsorship.

Executives at Jameson were part of those morning-after discussions, and they agreed with dropping the billboard. The whiskey maker is a sponsor of the overall ESPN Films series, not just “Unguarded.”

“We were unaware of the content in this particular film (which made it inappropriate for our brand), and would not have sponsored the film if we had been aware,” Jameson told us in a prepared statement.

So how did this happen in the first place? Blame autopilot on the part of ESPN’s standards-and-practices group, which is responsible for making sure commercials and advertising messages are appropriate for the programming, time of day and other considerations.

In this case, the non-standard format of the ESPN Films series was apparently a contributing factor. The films are shown with limited commercial interruptions, with sponsors such as Jameson and Buick providing financial support without the same level of branding seen with regular 30-second commercials. In the right setting, such sponsorships are considered a good thing for viewers and advertisers alike.

But ESPN’s standards-and-practices group mostly worries about traditional commercials. For “Unguarded,” the group had few traditional ad spots to catch, and Jameson was a familiar name as a series sponsor. Combine those two things, and, well, the group let its guard down.

“We erred on the side of trying to be innovative in terms of the advertising environment and in trying to provide our fans a limited-interruption environment,” said Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president of consumer sales and marketing. “Unfortunately the film for this one brand wasn’t the right connection. We responded as quickly as we could.”

Erhardt doesn’t see a need to change ESPN’s procedures, beyond a reminder that the standards-and-practices team needs to be eagle-eyed, even outside of its routines. That sounds right to us.

“These things occur,” Erhardt says. “It’s one of those things where you say, ‘Let’s be sure we’re looking at everything.’ And ‘everything’ includes the limited-commercial-interruption billboards.”