Just how are these Internet animation companies making ends meet? Karen Raugust investigates a few ways that clever companies are placing advertising into our favorite Webisodes.
Corporations are increasingly looking toward the Internet as an advertising vehicle, especially to reach target markets such as young males and urban dwellers that tend to be frequent Internet users. But many question the effectiveness of banner ads -- the initial standard for Internet advertising -- and, as a result, are experimenting with new ways of getting their message across. These tests often focus on animation.
Altoids Little Devil
Altoids created an online animated spokesperson to support the launch of its new line extension, Cinnamon Altoids. "We asked, How do we generate buzz with our Altoid consumer and consumers in general about this new flavor launch?" said Andrew Burke, Altoids brand manager. The answer was to create a racy, animated spokescharacter that embodied the "heat" of cinnamon and send users to a Webster featuring that character, in order to introduce them to cinnamon as an Altoids flavor.
The site, Toohot.com, launched October 1, 1999, and was the focal point of the Cinnamon promotional campaign. Burke says the company drove traffic to the site through "print ads in our core urban markets, where our target consumers live," magnets placed on street signs and subway cards, personal ads in local newsweeklies, postcards and posters. The teaser message featured the Cinnamon spokesperson and the Toohot.com URL on a light green Altoids background; there was no mention of the Altoids brand name. The campaign ran through December and generated strong traffic over the three-month period, according to Burke. "It far surpassed our expectation."
Traffic dropped off a bit after December, when the campaign ended, as was anticipated. "It wasnt meant to necessarily live on its own after the mainline campaign," Burke explains, noting that Toohot.com incorporated a link to Altoids main Web site, Altoids.com, driving traffic there and building awareness for that site as well as for Cinnamon Altoids.
The objective of the campaign was more to spread the word about the new product launch over the Internet rather than to drive a certain number of sales of Cinnamon Altoids, Burke explains. Feedback from the site was overwhelmingly positive, with comments indicating that viewers thought its design was pushing the envelope for Flash animation. (The WDDG created the animation.) "It was designed to get buzz going with our target, which happens to be very web-savvy," says Burke. He adds that Internet sites such as Macromedia featured Toohot.com as a cool site, as did several print magazines and television programs. "It did all the things we wanted it to do," Burke concludes.
The company is now focusing its Internet efforts on Altoids.com, which launched in March 1999. "We put the URL on our Altoids ads, but theres no special campaign to drive consumers there," Burke says. "We want [the site] to be fresh and relevant to our consumers and let it spread through word of mouth."
Product Placements New Realm
Another avenue for boosting brand recognition is through product placements within online animated films. Rumpus.com integrated product placements from The Body Shop, a health and beauty products retailer, Jelly Belly jelly beans, Krispy Kreme donuts and New York-area newspapers for its animated childrens film, Herschel Hopper New York Rabbit, which debuted in April. Tanner Zucker, director of new media at Rumpus.com, an online toyseller that plans to introduce more childrens animation series, notes that Rumpus.com decided to eschew banner advertising for creative reasons. "Its like bringing a foreign object into our design," he says. "It doesnt look great and its kind of obnoxious." Instead, the company opted for 15-second interstitials within programming and for product placement as advertising vehicles. "[Product placement is] a unique and customized opportunity [for advertisers] to be seen by our viewers," Zucker says, noting that users do not click away from the site during the advertising message.
Product placements are somewhat like character endorsements. For example, the character Herschel Hopper was shown eating Jelly Belly jelly beans and taking a bath with bottles of The Body Shop-branded products visible on the side of the tub. As part of the plotline, his picture appeared in newspapers such as The New York Observer and The New York Post. All told, there were five to 10 placements within the film. Both Krispy Kreme and The Body Shop promoted Herschel Hopper in their stores with signage and literature, which drove traffic to Rumpus.com. The newspapers ran movie ads for the production.
Zucker notes that since viewers could see the movie for free (thanks to a partnership with Lycos), Rumpus.com was unable to track how many viewers came to the site as a result of individual promotions, but he reports that traffic was greater for the film than is normal on a daily basis, suggesting that the promotions helped. (Originally, Rumpus.com had intended to charge $3 per view.)
Chad Little, PR coordinator for The Body Shop, says that the retailers target consumer includes both adults and children, so it made sense to tie in with a vehicle that appealed to families. "Herschel Hopper was presented to us as the first online childrens feature-length animated film," says Little. "There was a warm excitement about it."
"We would have liked to track the results of this promotion but we were unable to monitor exact figures," says Little. "However, we definitely received positive feedback from customers around this promotion."
Starting in early June, Rumpus.com will offer interstitials both in its future entertainment properties as well as in its online games. They will continue to incorporate product placements into thier productions as well.
Selling Out The ThugsMondo Media produces animated online programming including Thugs on Film and The God and Devil Show, which it syndicates to 15 to 20 Web sites with a total potential audience of 60 million to 70 million viewers and sells mini-commercials as well as sponsorships. Steve Ledoux, Mondos SVP syndication and ad sales, describes the online commercials as "a TV-like experience. Instead of a flat graphic you have rich-media content to tell your story. But, unlike TV, you also have the ability to immediately transact." Viewers can stop the show at the point of the commercial, click, and directly purchase the product advertised.
In Thugs on Film, the two characters review a movie and then recommend a related film available on video, which viewers can purchase at that time from advertiser Reel.com. For example, during the Thugs review of Mission Impossible 2, they recommend the video of the first Mission Impossible film. "Its clearly not a product placement," Ledoux explains, noting that while the Thugs stay in character, viewers are aware they are looking at a commercial message. "Weve had people tell us, and this is a direct quote, that This is crass commercialism done at its best," says Ledoux.
Mondo also offers traditional TV-style commercials where the entertainment fades to black before and after the advertisement. The choice depends on the product and the entertainment vehicle; some characters would never hawk a product while others would. In addition to Reel.com, other Mondo Media advertisers include Eyada, a chat site, which advertises on The God and Devil Show, and the cable network BBC Americas, which will advertise its Friday night British humor line-up during Thugs on Film. (The latter is part of a broader alliance that will eventually lead to Thugs on Film being aired as a television program on the cable outlet.)
Mondo Media usually sells one sponsorship plus one mini-ad per segment, sometimes both to one advertiser, as is the case with Reel.coms involvement with Thugs on Film. The cost per thousand viewers (CPM) for a mini-ad alone ranges from $40 to $80; a typical ad buy brings 1 million to 3 million impressions per month. The click-through rate for Reel.com (the number of viewers who link to Reel.com while watching Thugs on Film) has exceeded 8% -- a very high level -- based on one months worth of data. "[The ads are] compelling, entertaining and allow for immediate click-through," Ledoux emphasizes.
Harry Bernstein, VP of corporate development at Reel.com, notes that the companys relationship with Mondo Media has two prongs. Reel.com airs Thugs on Film on its site, which features both entertainment content and e-commerce, as well as running ads within Thugs on Film; the ads are seen by viewers of all of Mondos syndication affiliates. "We were impressed with the strength of the content and the strength of their affiliate network," says Bernstein. "We were interested in getting rich media content on our own site and to use [the Mondo Media series] as a vehicle to drive traffic to our site." Bernstein notes that traffic to Reel.com due to the Thugs on Film advertising compares favorably with other methods of customer acquisition.
To date, many online advertisers associated with animation content are either dot.coms or entertainment companies -- which value the synergy between on-screen and online entertainment and branding -- but other consumer goods companies are also involved. In addition to Altoids activity, M&M/Mars Starburst brand was featured in an ad before Sho.coms Whirlgirl series last year, while retailer Tower has sponsored animated programming on Spumco.com.
Karen Raugust is the author of several books and reports on licensing and entertainment, including The Licensing Business Handbook, International Licensing: A Status Report (both available from EPM Communications, New York) and Merchandise Licensing for the Television Industry (available from Focal Press, Newton, Mass.). She also writes about licensing, animation and other topics for publications including The Hollywood Reporter, Publishers Weekly and Animation Magazine, and acts as a consultant to the licensing and entertainment industries. She is the former Executive Editor of The Licensing Letter.
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