Big Marketers Buy Into Spongebob Squarepants

New Alliance Ties Adult Product Promotions to Children's Entertainment

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LOS ANGELES -- A group of major marketers more accustomed to speaking to adults than children are about to enlist the services of SpongeBob SquarePants in hopes of selling more cars, hotel rooms, tourist trips and racetrack tickets.
A scene from the new 'The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.'

In a curious merger of adult products and children's cartoon entertainment, Mitsubishi, Holiday Inn, the Cayman Islands tourism bureau and Nascar are partnering their holiday promotions and ad campaigns with Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Picture's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

'The first time'

"This is the first time we've ever had such interest from traditional adult marketers," said Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon's senior vice president of marketing. "Most of them are structuring their campaigns so that they have a dual message."

The Nickelodeon series SpongeBob SquarePants, the top-ranking children's show on which the movie is based, regularly pulls in a sizeable adult audience. Those viewers also fuel the billion-dollar SpongeBob licensed merchandise business. Among the property's most loyal fans are college students, gays and African-American men, according to Nickelodeon executives.

The goal of the cooperative effort is to speak directly to children as well as to adult fans of the goofy animated sea creature that has become a wildly popular and ubiquitous part of American culture.

The new marketer/entertainment company alliances are part of a trend in which marketers of adult products are trying to get closer to children, whose in-home brand-related lobbying and decision-making now reaches far beyond everyday categories such as fast food, snacks and toys.

Opens Nov. 19

Nickelodeon and Paramount, both part of Viacom, have a number of joint hits under their belt, such as Rugrats: The Movie, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and The Wild Thornberrys. All had big-money, cross-promotional deals with typical children's marketers, as does The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which opens Nov. 19.

Burger King, Kellogg and candy company Perfetti Van Melle USA will launch fourth quarter campaigns pegged to SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and the other inhabitants of the fictional Bikini Bottom.

The Burger King tie-in will feature a children's meal component and children-targeted media, plus an offer for a collectible watch that skews more to teens and adults. The fast-food company also plans media buys aimed at Hispanic and African-American consumers.

Unlike the marketing and promotions around some of its prior animated franchise successes, Nickelodeon executives are heavily targeting adults for SpongeBob with tactics such as an unofficial blogger site and a sound track that includes songs from indie favorites Flaming Lips and Wilco.

Mitsubishi commercials

Mitsubishi Motors North America will promote the movie in its TV commercials later this year. The automaker is still working out the details, but the most likely scenario would be to tag the last few seconds of its ads to promote the movie, said Ian Beavis, Mitsubishi's senior vice president of marketing, product planning and public relations.

The car maker partnered with Nickelodeon last year, with Mitsubishi using SpongeBob SquarePants clips in a TV commercial. The cartoon aired for several seconds on a DVD screen in the back seat of the family-targeted Endeavor sport utility vehicle. That spot, from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, Los Angeles, broke in the spring and was tweaked a few months later to better zero in on the vehicle's target market.

Holiday Inn, with its ad agency, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, will run ads produced specifically for Nickelodeon that show its myriad links with the SpongeBob characters. As part of a two-year deal with the children's cable network, the hotel chain has SpongeBob-themed menu items, pool activities and wake-up calls. It's the first entertainment tie-in for the company, which will include the movie's DVD release next year.

SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 300 race

An upcoming Nascar race will be branded for the movie, called the Lowe's Presents SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 300. Jimmy Johnson and Kyle Bush will drive SpongeBob character cars in the Oct. 15 race airing on TNT. The Cayman Islands tourism board launches a multipronged promotion, including online and print ads, a trip sweepstakes with Kellogg, and themed "sea school" and activities on the islands.

Nickelodeon, in a first full-blown synergy for one of its movies, has produced on-air spots for the Viacom family, where SpongeBob promos will air on MTV, VH1, Spike and Comedy Central. TV Land will air a Baywatch marathon to play up David Hasselhoff's role in the movie.
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