MLB Reversal Fuels Ad-Boundary Debate

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Major League Baseball canceled its contentious co-promotion with Sony's Columbia Pictures after a media-fueled fan outcry. But the battle between marketers trying to break through the clutter and consumers struggling to define boundaries in the midst of a relentless advertising assault continues.

The question is whether the reversal of a plan to stamp baseball bases with logos represents a drawing of a line in the sand or a temporary victory against inevitable ad creep.

"Marketers will always push the envelope, and I think somebody will try something like this again," said David Schwab, director-media and marketing for Octagon, Interpublic Group of Cos.' sports marketing arm. "Brands are continually being challenged to come up with new ways to sell the product. They're just going to have to test the waters to see if the public is going to push back. This time, the public pushed back."

Quick reversal
Less than 48 hours after MLB announced plans to put logos for the upcoming film "Spider-Man 2" on the bases at 15 parks next month, the league reversed itself and scaled back the co-promotion with Sony.

A public outcry, fueled by media criticism, forced the league to cancel that portion of the marketing ploy. "Spider-Man 2" logos will still appear in the on-deck circles during MLB games from June 11-13, as well as on masks, foam fingers and other giveaways being handed out at the parks.

But the backlash over the bases caught some by surprise. "We never saw this coming, the reaction the fans had," said Geoffrey Ammer, president-worldwide marketing for the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. "It became a flashpoint. The reaction was overwhelming."

Of more than 45,000 respondents to an ESPN.com poll, 79.4% were against the idea. In a similar poll on AOL.com, more than 70,000 people responded to the question: "Do you agree with Major League Baseball's decision to pull plans for `Spider-Man 2' ads on bases?" As of May 7, 83% said this type of advertising didn't belong in baseball; only 17% dubbed it a harmless promotion.

Sony didn't say whether its $3.6 million payment to baseball for the overall promotion was reduced, but the studio still looked to be a winner despite the controversy. "Baseball has taken a hit, sure, but look at the other side of the coin: How much PR did `Spider-Man 2' just get in the last three days?" Mr. Schwab said. "This movie isn't even coming out until [June 30] and the publicity is already outweighing Van Helsing [which opened May 7]. That in itself is more valuable than a logo on a base."

Bellwether?
Whether this victory will be a bellwether for the consumer's fight against the encroachment of ads, or just a 50-pound sandbag trying to hold back an ocean remains to be seen.

Sports, in particular, is a popular setting for the argument. Earlier this month, five horse jockeys successfully sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority for the right to wear advertising patches on their silks for the Kentucky Derby. College football postseason bowl games have for years been named after the marketers who serve as primary sponsors, such as the Nokia Sugar Bowl. Professional boxers have worn ink stencils of a logo for online casino goldenpalace.com on their backs during fights. Virtual advertising, seen only by the TV viewer, is becoming more commonplace during the telecast of ball games.

"I think part of the problem with this particular promotion is that baseball, in the minds of its fans, stepped on the biggest asset that it has: its history," said a VP-marketing for a blue-chip company that does business with all the major sports leagues. "It's the oldest sport, and while fans can forgive outfield signs and stadium naming rights, they're not quite ready to see the integrity of what happens between the white lines be challenged."

MLB did say the promotion was a way to market to kids and the next generation of fans, something Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter-Ironically nicknamed Spider-Man for his acrobatic catches-agreed with.

"It's for kids, and kids love it," Mr. Hunter told the Associated Press. "It would have been cool to see the Spider-Man logo for those three days. Kids could have worn their Spider-Man gear to the stadium."

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