The Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV: It’s not just a utility vehicle, it’s a crunchy outer shell for Tyrannosaurus Rex victims.
That’s not the slogan for the new Mercedes, but it might as well be after the German automaker chose to debut its much-anticipated utility vehicle in the film “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” last weekend.
Ever since BMW introduced a new model in last year’s James Bond flick “GoldenEye,” auto manufacturers have been looking to Hollywood to inject a little glitz into their marketing mix. Two other automakers besides Mercedes-Benz have promotional tie-ins with 1997 movies Volvo with “The Saint” and General Motors Corp. with the Walt Disney Co. summer animated release “Hercules.”
Actually, it’s not just automakers. Promotional tie-ins have been popular marketing devices ever since Reese’s Pieces touched off a sales bonanza by being the candy of choice for “E.T.” in 1982. But two trends in the 1990s seem to be overlapping: Corporate advertisers are realizing that being associated with a hit film can add glamour to their products and boost sales, and movie studios are getting more aggressive in their pursuit of promotional partners.
The result is that many companies that never would have considered teaming up with a movie studio have joined the tie-in game in recent years.
For example, Apple Computer Inc. entered a partnership last year with Paramount Pictures on the film “Mission: Impossible.” A couple of months after that release, Apple was priming the 20th Century Fox hype machine on “Independence Day.”
Other newcomers to Hollywood include MCI, Amoco Corp. and Adolph Coors Co., all of which launched their first promotional tie-ins within the past year.
A promotional tie-in is not the same as a product placement, although one often stems from the other. In a product placement, a company pays a fee to a studio for the right to use its product as a high-profile prop in a film.
The Mercedes SUV in “The Lost World” is a product placement because the car appears in the movie, but it’s also a promotional tie-in because Mercedes is launching a promotional campaign based on the movie.
In tie-in deals, an advertiser uses elements from an upcoming film usually film clips or stills in its own advertising campaign for a given period before the movie opens. No cash is exchanged between the advertiser and the movie studio in this kind of deal; the advertiser gets the rights to exploit the film in exchange for paying all the media costs for the spots.
Thus the advertiser gets to associate its product in the public’s mind with an upcoming movie, and the studio gets free publicity for its film.
How much publicity? Some estimates suggest Universal Studios Inc. is getting up to $250 million worth of free exposure through its partnerships on “The Lost World.” Joel Ehrlich, senior vice president of promotions for DC Comics/Warner Bros., says Warner’s upcoming “Batman & Robin” is also getting “a couple of hundred million” worth of free media.
While studio marketers agree that tie-ins are becoming a booming business, there is still some caution on the part of advertisers about getting too involved with Hollywood. Movie-making is a risky business, and nobody wants his or her product associated with a bomb. Some companies have been burned by spending heavily on movie-oriented ads, only to see the movie they’re promoting hit screens months later than originally planned because of production delays or scheduling conflicts.
Which is why the movies perceived as “sure things” such as Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World” and the upcoming “Batman & Robin” are often loaded with promotional partners, while other pictures are lucky to find one or two.
“There are certain properties that are such a known entity that you really can’t go wrong,” said Tom Tomlin, vice president of national promotions with 20th Century Fox. “I’m sure no one had to make a call from Universal to find partners for ‘The Lost World.'”
On the other hand, studio marketers maintain that an unsuccessful movie doesn’t necessarily mean an unsuccessful tie-in.
“There have been numerous times when movies haven’t been hits, and companies have still been able to take advantage of the tie-in,” said Max Goldberg, chairman and president of the Promotional Marketing Association of America and vice president of promotions with Buena Vista Home Video. “By the time people know whether or not the movie is a hit, you’ve already done your (promotional) business.”
Goldberg and his peers at other studios are looking harder for promotional partners than ever before, thanks to the escalating cost of movie marketing. With the growing number of releases has come a growing emphasis on creating awareness for a picture before it opens. Studios have to stretch their marketing budgets as far as possible by getting other companies to share the burden of media costs.
Tomlin, who put together six partnerships for Fox’s “Independence Day” last year, said the studio had never before had that many tie-ins on a single film.
“The Lost World” likewise set a record for Universal the movie has eight promotional partners. “Batman & Robin” also has eight corporate partners from a wide variety of industries. Ehrlich said the partners were chosen as part of a strategy to reach the broadest possible demographic.
“What the studio derives from all of this is, a kid is going to sit down in the morning with a box of Kellogg’s cereal that has the ‘Batman’ characters right on the box, and be able to interact with them,” Ehrlich said. “I think that’s the most valuable kind of exposure you can get.”
Los Angeles Business Journal staff reporter Dan Turner covers the marketing, entertainment and media industries.