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COMPUTER PRODUCTS FOR BAD GUYS

Alienware's Offbeat Product-Placement Strategy

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The deal: Computer maker Alienware has turned to product placement to make its high-powered computers appeal to more than just gamers.

The result: The company’s aggressively styled hardware has been able to land some high-profile roles in TV shows and films and steal some thunder away from rivals Apple and Dell.


The computer maker's glowing-eyed alien logo is winding up in the hands of villains on TV and in movies.



When it comes to placement in a TV show or movie, most brands would prefer to have the hero use their products. Yet during the most recent season of Fox’s 24, audiences watched as terrorists hunched over an Alienware laptop to launch a nuclear missile at a city in the U.S.

That was just fine with the executives at the Miami-based computer maker.

'Winning the lottery'

“It was the product placement equivalent of winning the lottery,” said Brian Joyce, Alienware’s director of marketing. “It was on screen for so long. Would you rather be with the guys with white hats? Absolutely. But as long as the product isn’t seen in a negative light, then you’re generally OK.”

Alienware is getting a lot of screen time these days.

Over the past several years, the privately held company, founded in 1996, has relied on product placement in various films and TV shows to generate awareness for the company’s line of high-end computers.

Two years ago, Alienware hired Vancouver, Canada-based product placement shop PropStar to promote the computers to Hollywood prop masters and set decorators. Since then the company’s hardware has landed prominent placements in shows such as CBS’ CSI and Two and a Half Men, the WB’s Smallville, NBC’s ER, and Showtime’s The L Word and Queer as Folk, among others. In the fall, it will appear in the new WB comedies Pepper Dennis and Twins.

John Travolta and 'Be Cool'

Earlier this year, the company’s Sentia laptop was seen in the MGM comedy Be Cool, a sequel to Get Shorty, both of which starred John Travolta. The film’s DVD hit retailers this week. Sentia will soon appear in Universal’s upcoming comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Those properties are a major departure from what Alienware has been used to landing.

Originally founded as a maker of highly stylized and powerful machines for gamers, the company is now trying to court a larger group of consumers with a brand it says represents style, performance, reliability and customization.

“We’re not trying to abandon the folks that brought us here, but we’re trying to appeal to a broader audience,” Mr. Joyce said. That includes musicians, artists and filmmakers, not to mention the military, looking for high-powered equipment.

Given that the company initially targeted the video-game crowd with its machines, PropStar sought out projects that would appeal to the company’s core audience –- computer geeks. That meant a lot of sci-fi.

Characters with a harder edge

“Over the years, we’ve been able to expand beyond that and associate [with] characters that have a harder edge about them,” said PropStar's creative director, Nancie Tear, citing advertising and record company executives as examples. “People who are always on the go. There’s now very little association with gaming at all. ”

Those types of characters also include villains, as was the case with 24.

“The product helps create a character’s identity,” Ms. Tear said. “Establishing it with a bad guy gives it a cool and edgy image. That’s a look we felt works with the company.”

When it comes to choosing projects, TV has proved more appealing lately than film, considering that appearances don’t take as long to reach consumers.

“With a film, I have to worry about whether a product is still going to be alive a year from now,” Mr. Joyce said, adding that TV also allows the company to target a more specific demographic and identify just how many people saw the placement.

Landing the placements hasn’t been easy, however.

Rivals Apple and Dell

Computers from rivals like Apple and Dell have become ubiquitous on TV show and film sets, and Alienware must constantly compete with the two rivals for attention from prop masters.

But the look of Alienware’s computers has helped the company stand out.

Since it was founded, the company’s computers have been known for their unusual and aggressive industrial design. Cases sport a variety of bright metallic colors, with each boasting the company’s large alien logo with glowing eyes. Alienware recently rolled out a new line of more conservatively designed computers -- for customers who want the power of the company’s machines but are looking for a more professional-looking system.

Still, it’s the company’s unique design that has helped Alienware appeal to set designers looking for options other than a bland beige box.

For example, Warner Bros.’ Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed required a different-colored computer to represent the individual characters of the film.

Loans hardware to producers

Alienware usually doesn’t pay for placement; instead, it loans out hardware to producers. The number it can send to a producer is usually limited, however, given that the company custom-builds each device. It builds roughly 50,000 machines per year.

Its Sentia laptop is usually requested more often than its towers. “That’s usually fine with us, considering that the laptop is on top of the desk and the desktop is usually underneath a desk,” Mr. Joyce said.

Executives said that despite the potential for exposure, one drawback of product placement is that there are no guarantees as to how the product will appear. That’s if it appears at all.

“You have no control over how it’s going to look,” Mr. Joyce said. “We’re rolling the dice with every placement. A lot of the times it ends up on the cutting room floor.”

Effective measurement elusive

Measuring the effectiveness of the placement also remains elusive. Alienware relies on feedback from e-mails, Web site forums and company surveys to find out whether customers ever saw the placement.

“In the surveys, we track where people heard about us,” Mr. Joyce said. “You do see the placement show up. At the end of the day, we use product placement to get people intrigued enough to visit our Web site and check out our products. It gives them a sense of what [our products] look like, what they do and whether people respond to them in a positive manor. It’s all about brand building.”
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