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Whose Ad Is This Anyway?
Agencies Use Brand Icons To Promote Other Products; Cheaper Than Zeta-Jones


And now, pitching for Sprint Corp.'s cellphone service, it's ... the Pillsbury Doughboy?

Yes indeed. In a new ad, doughy Poppin' Fresh himself joins the Sprint Guy, the trench-coated character who seeks to cure the world's cellphone ills.

"Am I supposed to make a phone call or am I supposed to buy some biscuits?" asks Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe SA's Leo Burnett USA.

Maybe both. What's certain is that a fad is afoot on Madison Avenue, and it involves a sort of cross-fertilization of brands -- for example, the famed Maytag Corp. repairman turned up last year in an ad for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Impala, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua, once a popular part of the selling message from that Yum Brands Inc. chain, has appeared on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s Geico.

What do these oddball pairings accomplish? "Some of these characters are very effective at telling engaging stories," says David Altschul, president of Character, a Portland, Ore., consulting firm that creates and revives brand characters.

Part of the appeal is watching how these ad critters act in a different milieu, Mr. Altschul says. "In a lot of these cases, the characters are being stretched a little further," he suggests, so consumers get the same thrill they might experience seeing Sharon Stone emote for Time Warner Inc.'s America Online.

Michael Markowitz, a Santa Fe, N.M., branding consultant, begs to differ. "As a short-term tactic, it's probably got some charm," he says. "As a serious strategy, I'd say it is dangerously flawed." Using an actress such as Catherine Zeta-Jones lends a product or service an aspirational quality, but tapping an imaginary figure such as Mr. Whipple or Mr. Peanut ultimately does little in the way of long-term image building, he says.

Sprint says its commercial makes sense in the context of its ongoing campaign. The company has aired nearly 100 different commercials featuring its Sprint Guy, says Dan Wilinsky, a spokesman. Consumers are accustomed to a certain format and style, which is adhered to in the Doughboy commercial, Mr. Wilinsky says. He also points out that celebrities including Charo and the Captain and Tennille have made appearances in Sprint ads, and suggests the Pillsbury character is being used in much the same vein.

Employing one of these characters, while definitely cheaper than a real-life celebrity endorser, requires more than the aid of a skilled cartoonist. Companies typically use a licensing agreement. Prices can range from a nominal fee to a seven-digit figure, depending on the popularity of the character and the way in which he, she or it is used, says Jeffrey S. Edelstein, an attorney specializing in marketing law for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a national law firm. A Kellogg Co. spokeswoman says the company examines outside use of characters such as Rice Krispies' Snap, Crackle and Pop, on a case by case basis, and typically does not disclose the business practices surrounding such pacts.

Corporations flush with characters typically maintain restrictions and conditions on how the characters can be presented. "You have to be really careful how you treat these characters," says Ms. Berman. "At some point you could confuse people, and their thinking could become cloudy."

That isn't stopping the Doughboy: Backed by General Mills Inc.'s Pillsbury, Poppin' Fresh is lending his presence to advertisers other than Sprint. SuperTarget, a grocery-store concept from retailer Target Corp., launched an ad in October that features 17 ad characters, ranging from the Gorton Fisherman to Tony the Tiger to the zippy four-fingered hand character who backs Hamburger Helper. As he rides a train, the Doughboy lets loose with a lusty yell.

A General Mills spokeswoman indicated executives were not immediately available for comment. At Target Stores, spokeswoman Paula Thornton-Greear says the company believes using the ad folk can spark wider consumer recognition. "Everyone can relate to at least one of those icons," she says.

Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman and chief creative officer of Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, an independent New York agency that crafted the SuperTarget ad, adds that using multiple icons creates viewer interest.

"People have relationships with brands they love," says Mr. Kirshenbaum. "They have grown up with them. They have real faith in them."

Posted on aef.com: December 8, 2003

 

Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. December 4, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.