LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Most Americans don't recognize Hugh Jackman, but after this week many will be familiar with his metal-manicured alter ego, Wolverine.
At least Twentieth Century Fox hopes so: The studio will open "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" on May 1 with a handsome Australian male lead, but one whose total awareness with the American public stands at just 48% overall, according to the most recent E-Poll Market Research survey shared with Advertising Age. By comparison, comparable male stars such as Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington routinely poll well into the 90th percentiles for both name and face recognition.
Saying that Mr. Jackman is "best known" for playing the long-clawed mutant Logan in Fox's "X-Men" franchise isn't saying much: Only 42% of those surveyed by E-Poll last December could recognize the actor by his face alone, despite Mr. Jackman's star turn in Fox's heavily promoted romantic drama "Australia" that month. (What could help Mr. Jackman, who in addition to the big screen has also appeared on Broadway and in the short-lived CBS musical drama "Viva Laughlin," is that he's the host of this Sunday's Academy Awards telecast on ABC.)
But thanks to an unusual start to the marketing campaign for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," placing Mr. Jackman's name with a face may not be an issue for the studio much longer.
Earlier this week, Fox debuted three contiguous 60-second commercials explaining why we should care about "Wolverine." The first spot, "Outcasts," reveals a glimpse of the character's previously unknown childhood. That was followed by "Brothers," which discloses that an older, mutant teen who took Logan under his wing after the death of his father was actually his sibling. The final spot, "Legends," reveals what brought the two men into conflict. All three commercials are meant to make an already heartily nerd-approved character more accessible to a general audience.
Somewhat atypically, all three "Wolverine" spots were heavily promoted on the Fox Broadcasting network, before airing on hit Fox shows such as "American Idol" and "House," as well as online at the News Corp.-owned social-networking site MySpace.
Twentieth Century Fox marketing executives declined to speak about the strategy for "Wolverine," but an insider familiar with the studio's plans said the effort is only the beginning of a larger effort that will include other media not owned by News Corp., such as Yahoo Movies, as well as other broadcast TV networks.
Still, the heavily Fox-owned marketing move appears savvy for two reasons. For one, it plays off mainstream consumers' propensity to view movie advertising as entertainment in and of itself. By promoting the "Wolverine" spots' imminent arrival on the broadcast network's most popular shows, as the Fox insider put it, "that helps build anticipation -- something you just can't do when you're just selling dishwashing soap."
Or as the head of a rival studio's marketing department put it, "'Event-izing' the release of marketing materials gets you a lot of noise."
Making noise will be crucial for "Wolverine." While the debut of its trailer at San Diego's annual nerd prom, Comic-Con, was a huge hit with fanboys, that hardcore audience is generally only responsible for $7 million of any comic-book film's overall gross, according to several Hollywood studio marketing executives.
For another matter, whatever was lost by restricting the initial reach of the "Wolverine" push to Fox properties may be made up for in its (relative) frugality: None of the spots required additional footage to be shot. And while buying airtime on "American Idol" -- the most popular show on TV -- is never cheap, that it was for a sibling company likely meant that inventory was available at a better price than for a non-News Corp.-owned client.
"It's not free by any means, but you get a good rate," said the marketing exec at the rival studio. "These longer pods, and A-1 placement? You'd normally pay a premium for that, unless you have an in with the network and can say, 'We need this.'"
Counting on 'Wolverine'
Indeed, Twentieth Century Fox needs this. Last summer was the first in almost a dozen years that the studio couldn't manage a single $100-million box-office hit. It finished 2008 in fifth place, snaring just 10.5% of market share, and barely cracked a billion dollars in grosses with the 20 films it released. The No. 2 studio last year, Paramount, grossed half a billion dollars more than Fox, but released half a dozen fewer films.
And this summer, Fox has plenty of other just as costly CGI-heavy films to market: "Night at the Museum 2" debuts later in May, "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" arrives in June and "They Came from Upstairs" descends in July.
The good news is that after having played Logan as part of an ensemble cast in three previous "X-Men" films, which grossed a combined $1.2 billion worldwide, Mr. Jackman's lackluster personal polling numbers are largely irrelevant, said marketers at rival studios. What matters is that the previous "X-Men" films have all worked increasingly well and that Logan is well-known, even if Mr. Jackman isn't.
"After so many 'X-Men' movies," said one studio chief, "his [personal] rating goes out the door, because he is Wolverine. Just like Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter: You ask people if they recognize Daniel Radcliffe, they have no idea what you're talking about. You show them that kid holding a wand, and they're like, 'Oh, you mean Harry Potter!'"