Saving Santa: Sony cancels edgy creative

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The night before the inaugural campaign for its e-commerce portal was to break, Sony Electronics Corp. pulled an estimated $5 million to $7 million ad push for SonyStyle.com, citing concerns over its controversial depiction of a roughed-up Santa Claus.

The irreverent spots, scheduled to break on Nov. 21, showed St. Nick being abducted and beaten by drifters-an image intended to emphasize his irrelevance to holiday shopping given the existence of SonyStyle.com. Y&R Advertising, New York, created the effort, which sought to drive consumers directly to the site; Y&R's Digital Edge handles media buying and planning (AA, Nov. 20).

The campaign was slated to run in five major markets over a four-week period. At the eleventh hour, Sony filled media time last week with existing creative for its FD Trinitron Wega TVs, modified with a SonyStyle.com tag. Spots for its Sony Vaio PCs will run this week, followed by a new holiday-themed SonyStyle.com ad during the final two weeks of the buy. The new SonyStyle.com spot will also be created by Y&R.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK

Although cable networks approved the spots, Sony executives grew concerned after receiving negative internal and external feedback on the creative approach. Sony did not conduct formal focus group testing, according to a Sony spokeswoman; instead, Y&R and Sony based the decision on internal research.

"We thought the work was extremely appropriate because of the target base. But we stand by Sony's decision," a Y&R spokeswoman said.

ESPN, The Discovery Channel, MTV and VH1, were among the cable programmers in the media buy. The Sony spokeswoman declined to say whether specific cable outlets had concerns about the edgy creative, but she did stress the ads were slated for adult-oriented outlets. "We weren't going to show them on Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network, that's for sure."

Sony executives knew that the black humor might be a stretch, but stuck with the strategy until Nov. 20, less than 48 hours before the commercials were to debut.

"We decided to replace the `We have Santa' campaign rather than run the risk of having consumers offended or misinterpret the humor," the spokeswoman said. "We knew going into it that the concept was edgy. We decided to push the envelope."

Sony e-Solutions Co. executives previewed rough cuts of the controversial TV spots during a Nov. 9 press conference to launch SonyStyle.com. During the meeting, Michael Tive, VP-marketing for Sony's e-Solutions Co., described the ads as "edgy and irreverent" and geared to an adult audience.

Veteran Sony watchers who saw the spots unveiled at the press conference expressed concern with the approach. "They've [Sony] always been a premium brand and when I saw the ads, it really raised questions in my mind about how a premium brand name could be put in the context of a `low-rent' situation," said Marjorie Costello, editor, CE Online News, an e-mail delivered industry newsletter.

A guerilla marketing campaign for SonyStyle.com, created by Middleberg Euro, New York, has also been put on hold.

The five pulled spots-slated to run in Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.-were shot in California this fall.

The Sony spokeswoman wouldn't disclose production costs on the shoot, but one executive close to the situation pegged the expenditure at about $300,000. The American Association of Advertising Agencies, in a recent report, estimated the average 30-second spot cost $343,000 to produce. The figure does not include media buying expenditures.

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