First Feature-Length Children's Cartoon to Sell Brand Inclusions

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LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood has kept its animated films off-limits to advertisers looking to place their products into family fare, but all that’s about to change this weekend when “Curious George” starts making mischief at the multiplex.
'Curious George' has broken through to new advertising territory within children's animated movie features.
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In the Universal Pictures chldren's feature, the well-known chimp of the popular young book series crashes into crates of Dole fruit, and the Man in the Yellow Hat races along in a Volkswagen truck --making the integrations one of the first product placements in a feature-length cartoon.

Volkswagen and Dole

Volkswagen is a corporate partner with Universal, and the placement of the German automaker in “Curious George” is part of that overall business arrangement with the studio. Same goes for the U.S. Postal Service, with a mail carrier appearing briefly in the movie. Dole, a frequent movie tie-in partner, is promoting “Curious George” with stickers on 100 million bananas and other advertising in exchange for screen time.

In the past, studios like the Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation have shied away from integrating real brands into their animated movies, with the films having remained one of the few brand-free places in entertainment.

But “Curious George” is expected to be the first of several new animated releases that prominently feature promotional partners —- no matter what demographic the film is trying to target.

Next year, Lionsgate Entertainment is scheduled to release “Foodfight,” a comedy set in a grocery store that will be packed with everyday products. Other studios say they have considered writing brands into animated children's flicks, and they can see a time when it’s more commonplace.

Critical watchdog groups

Watchdog groups have been critical of advertising to children in general, and specifically of marketers who sell fast food, salty snacks and sugary cereal. The groups are especially vocal about product placement in child-targeted entertainment.

“It’s essentially a form of subliminal advertising,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based consumer advocacy group. “It’s a technique that shouldn’t be used on children.”

That “Curious George” does not contain placements for toys, fatty foods or candy is “a distinction worth mentioning,” Mr. Ruskin said. “But it’s targeting young children who don’t understand advertising very well and definitely don’t understand product placement, which is more stealth.”

The movie, based on the well-known books from H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, aims at the under-8 set, considerably younger than many animated movies that target parents and young adults in addition to the core kid demographic.

Executives at Universal Studios Partnerships, the division that links brands with the conglomerate’s entertainment projects, said they asked two questions about embedding products into “Curious George.” Is it possible, and is it appropriate?

'The move is unusual'

“The movie is unusual for animation because it takes place in a city, not a super-fantastical world,” said Stephanie Sperber, exec VP-Universal Studios Partnerships.

The studio would not have tried to incorporate a food that wasn’t nutritious, hence the Dole deal, and made sure there was a safety message included in the VW placement. The character Ted tells George to “buckle up for safety” before the two go for a drive.

Volkswagen supplied the filmmakers with designs of a concept car, an open-bed truck-like version of the Toureg sports utility vehicle, so it would fit into the story. The car is featured in two major scenes in the movie, including one that has Ted racing to re-unite with his simian friend.

VW is considering an ongoing relationship with “Curious George,” possibly using him as a safety spokescharacter.

Ms. Sperber said the studio will evaluate product placement in animated children's fare on a case-by-case basis. “The brands would have to have a positive message,” she said. “We’ll be very careful about what we ever place in a kid’s G-rated movie.”

No written or formal rule

Executives at other studios said there’s no written or formal rule about incorporating real products into entertainment targeted at the youngest consumers. It’s routinely done in live-action all-family features, which often have contemporary real-world settings. For animation, studio executives and marketing tie-in partners have traditionally tried to find a thematic hook to blend the two together, since placement often wasn’t possible.

A senior-level executive at a major studio said it would be more difficult to integrate brands into animated features because the movies, by their nature, are fantasy.

“You’d break the fourth wall by introducing reality,” the executive said.

DreamWorks Animation has become known for its parodies of real brands in such movies as “Shark Tale” and “Shrek 2,” which featured Coral-Cola instead of Coca-Cola and Farbucks in lieu of Starbucks.

Parady brands 'part of the joke'

“In those cases, it was part of the joke and that’s always been our approach,” said Anne Globe, head of worldwide consumer products and promotions for DreamWorks. “It has to make sense for the movie creatively and fit the vision of the filmmaker.”

DreamWorks’ next project, “Over the Hedge,” could have been filled with real brands, given that its storyline follows some woodland creatures as they face and invade encroaching suburbia. Instead, the movie, to be released in May, will contain made-up brands. Disney’s “The Wild,” scheduled for next year, likely will feature storefronts and Times Square landmarks as cartoon animals tromp through New York City, but those are not part of tie-in deals, according to sources close to the film.

Pixar Animation used a range of iconic brands in its “Toy Story” movies, from Mr. Potato Head to Slinky, but generally disdains real products. A fast-food restaurant in “Toy Story” was called Pizza Palace, for instance, instead of Domino’s or McDonald’s, a Disney corporate partner.

Long-running TV shows like “The Simpsons” are known for their made-up brands like Krusty Burger and Duff beer, while classic properties like Looney Tunes have created fake names or parodies of real products as set pieces.

“As margins tighten, product placement could be an alternative source of funding for animated films,” said Aaron Berger, principal at Quattro Media, a firm that represents animators. “It could also be a way to get ancillary benefits from a studio-backed movie.”

In any case, this could be just the beginning.
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