VIRTUAL PETS ZOOMING INTO TV WITH SPOTS PLANNED FOR 3 BRANDS : TIGER, BANDAI AND PLAYMATES READY CAMPAIGNS

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Playmates Toys is preparing a rare ad push into prime-time TV to promote its forthcoming line of virtual pets, the toy industry's latest phenomenon.

Playmates, whose Nano line hits in late May, is making it a priority to be the first virtual pet marketer to advertise on national TV. Its multimillion-dollar campaign, created by the Sachs Group, Los Angeles, will be launched within weeks.

TIGER USING TV, TOO

But Playmates won't be alone: Tiger Electronics has decided that it will launch its Giga brand in June with a strategic TV assault, via Posnick & Kolker, New York (AA, May 12).

Meanwhile, Bandai America plans to support its Tamagotchi line with a back-to-school TV push created by J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago.

"People are recognizing this product as `that virtual pet thing from Japan,' but now the trick is how to get consumers to say `Nano' or `Giga' or `Tamagotchi,' " said Gina Beebe, Playmates' VP-marketing for girls toys. "That's how you will drive sales for your brand."

Bandai and Tiger began trotting out their pets market by market earlier this month and have so far relied on a mixture of publicity, national print ads, and local radio and outdoor advertising.

Tiger has found that its newspaper page ads, with direct messages about when and where product will be available, have been most effective.

IN PRIME TIME

But Playmates will launch nationally with TV spots in prime time, uncharted waters for the company. Playmates is targeting girls 8 to 13 for its Nano line, and will buy time in shows like ABC's "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" to reach them.

Like Bandai and Tiger, Playmates will offer kitty and puppy pets. But it also is the only company that will be marketing virtual human babies, which Playmates believes will prove huge with its target market.

"Girls are especially interested in nurturing toys, like baby dolls, and this is just the next step in that direction," Ms. Beebe said.

Tiger, however, believes virtual pets have a broader appeal, and is creating ads that target mothers, boys and girls.

It will buy time on talk shows to reach women, but is trying to keep its overall budget low in order to keep its suggested retail price below $10. Prices on the Bandai and Playmates products range from $12 to $20.

WHO'S FIRST

"I think it will be more of a question of who is at retail first and the quality of product," said Marc Rosenberg, Tiger VP-marketing communications. He added that cross-promotions with package goods companies will also make a difference. All three companies are currently pursuing deals.

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