Madison + Vine: Guinness makes ad character star of silver screen in Africa

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Guinness is turning celebrity product endorsement on its head.

Rather than signing an action-thriller film star to appear in Guinness commercials, the brewer's parent, Diageo, is bankrolling a feature film starring a character from the brand's long-running African TV campaign. "Michael Power: Critical Assignment" premiered last week in several African cities ahead of a pan-African release. The movie may be shown outside Africa, and the concept of using a character from an ad campaign in a movie may be replicated in other regions such as Asia, according to a Guinness executive.

Guinness didn't skimp on the production. A 100-strong crew spent three months filming in 40 locations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.

Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi created the action hero Michael Power in a commercial that first aired across Africa in 1999. The string of five-minute ads styled as mini adventure films became so popular that cash-strapped TV stations in Africa sometimes aired them as free programming.

According to a Guinness spokesperson, the original Michael Power campaign was based on three elements: Africa's tradition of storytelling, the need for a hero figure and the lack of quality entertainment in Africa. The character, the company said, doesn't carry a gun or resort to violence, but overcomes obstacles through perseverance and reliance on inner strength.

growing market

Guinness has measured the campaign largely through tracking brand-image characteristics such as affinity, distinctiveness and engagement, and these have increased significantly. Africa is one of the fastest-growing regions for Guinness, and the Michael Power campaign is a key contributor, according to the company.

Celia Couchman, executive producer of "Critical Assignment" and a director of Bedford, U.K.-based based consultant White Tiger Management, was marketing director for Guinness Africa from 1996 to 2000 and was responsible for the original Michael Power ad campaign.

The idea for a full-blown movie arose from market research. "Consumers said Michael Power should be in a movie," Ms. Couchman said. The challenge was to create a film to wow cinema-goers, but did not sound like an ad or violate the character attributes with which Guinness endowed Michael Power. "We had to create a film that had the integrity of a film. One thing we were not going to do was create one long ad."

In the movie, Michael Power is an international journalist who returns to his fictitious African homeland to cover the story of the president's decision to reallocate the country's budget for weapons to a "Water for All" project. The hero uncovers a plot to block the government from channeling military spending into providing clean water.

In the real world, the lack of safe drinking water is a major issue for Africa. For a decade, the Diageo Foundation has supported an international humanitarian program called "Water for Life" that backs clean-water programs in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, top targets for the film.

Along with the water theme, Guinness' famous black stout is prominent in the movie. Characters chat in a bar as they drink from Guinness bottles. One action scene includes a Guinness truck.

"Product placement only occurs where it's right for the story," Ms. Couchman said. "Consumers are very sophisticated and unless you maintain the integrity of the film you may as well pack up and go home."

The film is also careful to promote responsible drinking. One character never drinks, and another refuses a drink with a polite "No. I'm driving." Michael Power's own response to the same question is "No. I'm flying."

For Diageo, it's critical that "Critical Assignment" not be regarded as a 106-minute ad, and that it is considered an African film. Sold in Africa for 150 years, Guinness is considered a local brand. Nigeria alone is Guinness' third-biggest market in the world, and Africa accounts for 25% of Guinness' worldwide sales.

The writer, actors and crew members are all African. "It had to be an African film, made by Africans and for an African audience. It shows the quality of work that can come out of Africa," Ms. Couchman said.

Distribution will vary by country. Kenya, for instance, has movie-theater chains so the film will be released into general distribution like any other. In other countries, like Nigeria, Guinness will organize showings of the film in town halls or mobile cinemas as part of an extensive screening program to take the movie to as many people as possible. For many Africans, this will be the first time they have the opportunity to see a movie on a big screen, according to Guinness.


Although consumer research found that people would be willing to pay to see the movie, Diageo decided to offer it for free or make a token charge simply to control who sees the movie.

Saatchi & Saatchi, Capetown, South Africa, is creating a TV, print and poster campaign to promote the film. Like any movie, "Critical Assignment" will later be released into video and TV distribution, although no negotiations are complete.

In fact, Diageo may show "Critical Assignment" outside Africa, said Ekwunie Okoli, Africa brand director for Diageo. "[The movie's] principal objective was to create something we could give back to our consumers in Africa in order to build a deeper relationship with Michael Power and thus the brand," he said. But "given that the responses to the movie have been so positive as a piece of entertainment in its own right, we are considering opportunities to distribute the movie outside of Africa."

Or the concept may be replicated with characters developed in ad campaigns in other markets. "We have developed another brand icon called Adam King, who features in our advertising in Asia, but the way in which that strategy develops will depend entirely on consumer response in that region," he said.

The Adam King campaign was created by Saatchi & Saatchi, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and runs in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

"It would be wonderful if we can pull [a movie] off here in a couple of years, but Adam King has only been around in Asia for a little less than a year," said Craig Davis, Saatchi's regional creative director in Hong Kong. "It's too soon to say."

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