Holiday top-seller: Pepto-Bismol enlists Santa in pop pursuit

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In its latest efforts to turn century-old Pepto-Bismol into a pop phenomenon, Procter & Gamble Co. is looking to Santa, his elves and a trash-talking wide receiver.

P&G breaks the latest in its campaign for Pepto from Publicis Groupe's Publicis Worldwide, New York, today with a 30-second ad in which Santa and elves perform the increasingly famous dance interpretation of the five gastric-distress symptoms treated by the pink stuff.

Pepto may not rank with mistletoe, but the holidays are actually one of its top selling periods because of the season's serial overindulgences, said P&G Marketing Director Vince Hudson. Marketing mix models have shown TV spending around the holidays delivers Pepto's best return on investment.

The ad breaks a day after a Nov. 28 football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns that turned into an unauthorized, if not entirely unwelcome, Pepto promotion.

gift that keeps giving

Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson has been another gift that keeps on giving for P&G. Last month, he sent bottles of Pepto-Bismol to the defensive secondary of the Browns to treat the upset stomachs he threatened to inflict on them in Cleveland. Then, he urged Bengals fans to bring bottles of Pepto to wave during the rematch in Cincinnati.

Both are examples of how P&G is making the brand's marketing cross into pop culture, Mr. Hudson said. Those efforts have paid off, with Pepto sales up 5% since the dance campaign broke last year.

The Santa ad shows that the dance campaign can live on through many iterations, said David Corr, exec VP-creative director at Publicis. He credits in part a strategy so clear that P&G executives wrote it on a pink volleyball-"five symptoms, one product."

For its part, Publicis presented the campaign not with storyboards but by having five of the staff dress in pink outfits, put on the music and do the dance. That jibes, Mr. Corr said, with a call by P&G Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley for agencies to bring ideas, not storyboards, to presentations so not to automatically steer campaigns toward TV.

"The thing I think makes this idea have a long life is that it doesn't rely wholly on television," Mr. Corr said. "It can work in radio. You can do it during the seventh-inning stretch at a Yankees game."

won over by dance

Mr. Hudson admits he was suspicious when he saw no storyboards but was instantly won over by the dance. "It was like, `Let's print it.' No questions asked. We said, `This is going to be on `Saturday Night Live."'

Well, not quite yet. But discussion of the ads has emerged on blogs and message boards. Radio stations have done promos riffing off its jingle. And Mr. Hudson has received numerous reports of kids doing the Pepto dance at home.

Mr. Johnson's antics, meanwhile, garnered coverage by ESPN, CNN Headline News and USA Today. The Bengals' receiver probably came up with the Pepto gift idea during a cause-marketing appearance for Pepto, Mr. Hudson admitted. But, given recent outbreaks of unrest at sporting events, P&G won't encourage people to bring bottles to games.

"I think we'll leave it to Chad and [Bengals Coach] Marvin Lewis how to handle that," Mr. Hudson said.

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