Start in Europe, where a cartoon frog that started life as an online fad turned into a ringtone and a talked-about TV spot seen nearly four times more often than McDonald's-and now has marched to the tops of the music charts, surpassing Coldplay's first single in two years.
The noisy, smug and faintly obscene Crazy Frog is officially the hottest media property in the U.K., where phone-crazy teens spend more on ringtones per year than music. "The time is right," said Robert Swift, U.K. marketing manager of Jamster, the U.K. company that sells Crazy Frog and other ringtones. "The frog is innovative, annoying and he's news. He's the ultimate in disposable content." Jamster is already planning another Crazy Frog single and has several new characters that will soon be heavily marketed.
The ubiquitous amphibian began life as an Internet in-joke. In 1997, a Swedish teenager recorded his impression of a friend's souped-up moped and put it on the Internet. Through word-of-mouth, the ridiculous noise found fame within the online community, and in 2002 another Internet geek created an appropriately irritating yet compelling animated frog to communicate the sound. It was christened "The Annoying Thing."
It wasn't until 2004 that Jamba, a German ringtone company, spotted its popularity on the Net and bought the rights. Jamba, known as Jamster in the U.K., was bought by VeriSign for $300 million in May 2004.
Once converted into a ringtone, Crazy Frog's popularity spread quickly among U.K. teenagers, who spend on average $50 a year on ringtone downloads-more than they spend on CD singles. This earned Jamster enough money to do a TV spot and so infiltrate the mainstream.
A single release of the ringtone-based on "Axel F," the theme tune from the original "Beverly Hills Cop" movie-soon followed to capitalize on the creature's success.
Martin Loat, a director at Propeller Communications, which compiles a monthly survey of ads that make the news, said, "The Frog was not created by a traditional-media company but it has become a powerful icon. It illustrates the way that a property can take off, get into the culture and stick there. Lots of agency creatives could learn from this."
NO. 1 ADVERTISER
While Crazy Frog is charming a huge number of U.K. consumers, he's infuriating just as many. More than 1,000 people have already complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Most call and write merely to register their annoyance at the frequency of the TV commercial, a direct-response spot created in-house featuring the frog on a motorcycle and the endless ringtone.
During the first three weeks of May, Crazy Frog was the most frequent single brand advertiser on TV with 45,298 airings, according to Nielsen. This compares to 12,000 McDonald's spots and 11,500 ads for the U.K.'s biggest supermarket chain, Tesco. Procter & Gamble Co.'s entire portfolio commanded 51,000 spots during the same period.
Early complaints about Crazy Frog to the authority targeted the beast's genitalia, which were clearly on show for TV viewers at all times of the day and night. The ASA ruled, "It's unusual for an animated model to be shown with genitalia but there are no sexual or inappropriate references to the frog's anatomy." As a precaution against any backlash, however, Crazy Frog has since had his privates pixilated.
Other complaints focus on the Frog's appeal to children or that the ads do not make it clear that you are signing up to a subscription service with ongoing costs for multiple downloads.
Whatever his shortcomings, Crazy Frog, who has a presence in at least 18 mainly European countries, is a true pioneer of media convergence. Although Jamster will not break out figures, analysts say Crazy Frog's owners are making tens of millions of pounds from a character that started out in a teenage bedroom and is now part of a Nasdaq-listed U.S. corporation.
Since Crazy Frog has hopped into the mainstream, of course, it's now time to find the next big thing. "Jamster is committed to long-term downloadable mobile content," Mr. Swift said. "Crazy Frog is great, but it's not our business model."
But for now, the frog has made a princely happy ending for everyone, including Daniel Malmedahl and Erik Wernquist, the Net enthusiasts who created the sound and pictures for Crazy Frog and get a cut of the profits.