Pentax shows its cameras can withstand beastly abuse

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In his first U.S. commercial endorsement, Steve Irwin, the Aussie zookeeper better known as the Crocodile Hunter on cable TV's Animal Planet, is the new ad spokesman for Pentax cameras.

He will be featured in two TV spots that break nationally Nov. 22. The spots aim to show that the Pentax IQZoom cameras can withstand almost anything, even ferocious crocodiles and deadly pythons.

The 30-second commercials highlight features of the IQZoom 105WR and 160. Able to withstand a steady flow of water, the 105WR has the highest water-resistance classification in its category, said Flip Dalfonso, director of marketing at Pentax Corp. The 160's zoom lens extends to a length of 160mm, giving it the greatest zoom capability of any of its competitors, he noted.

"What we're looking to do right now is draw awareness to Pentax cameras that are unique," Mr. Dalfonso said.

BRUSHES WITH DEATH

The marketer hopes to attract attention using the Crocodile Hunter's characteristic near-death encounters with dangerous beasts, witnessed by more than 51 million households in episodes of "The Crocodile Hunter."

"We really wanted to put these cameras through the ultimate torture test -- dropped in mud, water or sand -- and who best to put them through that test than Steve," said Kelly Hanratty, account supervisor at Thomas & Perkins, Denver, the agency handling the ads.

To accentuate the products' unmatched qualities, TV spots reflect the extreme risk-taking that has become Mr. Irwin's trademark. In one, while lurking barely at arms' length from a crocodile, the Crocodile Hunter drops his IQZoom 105WR into a muddy swamp when the open-jawed beast lunges at him.

"No worries if you drop her in the mud; just rinse her off," he says.

The other spot features the hunter using the IQZoom 160 to get close-up shots of a deadly python. When he gets too close, he exclaims: "I could die taking this picture, but my Pentax is impervious to the bite!"

Pentax hopes the extreme approach will make the campaign stand out in an onslaught of new holiday-season advertising. The spots will air through Dec. 25 on cable networks. Print ads began appearing in October issues of magazines.

CULT FOLLOWING

"He has almost a cult following, but that doesn't necessarily mean a narrow following," said Betsy Bartholomew, account planner at Thomas & Perkins. "His audience is so committed that we thought we could use that to bring new people into the brand."

Although Pentax wouldn't disclose spending for the campaign, Mr. Dalfonso said it's one of the company's largest ad budgets in many years. Parent Asahi Optical Corp. spent $7.3 million on advertising in 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The "Crocodile Hunter" campaign represents a diversion from recent pushes by competitors Eastman Kodak Co. and Fuji Photo Film USA, which emphasize the joy of picture-taking in general by focusing on everyday events.

"Doing commercials about preserving memories and everyday picture-taking sells the [camera and film] category," Ms. Bartholomew said. "What we chose to do was highlight the cameras' strengths to show what Pentax brings to the category."

MINOLTA SLATES $20 MIL

Next week, Minolta Co. launches an estimated $20 million branding campaign using spot TV in 10 local markets. The ads, from Hill, Holliday/Altschiller, New York, carry the tag "Do something important" and focus on how Minolta cameras can help consumers.

Contributing: Hillary Chura

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