Chewbacca is busy recording ringtones for Cingular Wireless. Yoda is using the Force to lure a Diet Pepsi away from a fellow diner patron. And Darth Vader is preparing to fight a boy armed with a light-up SaberSpoon from a Kellogg’s cereal box.
As “Star Wars” fans eagerly anticipate the May 19 opening of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” the final installment of the most successful and celebrated film franchise in history, the classic “Star Wars” characters from a galaxy far, far away are taking a far more active role in pitching products in TV spots here on Earth than they have for any of the earlier films in the franchise.
As part of their promotional deals with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ Lucasfilm for “Sith” — which include tens of millions of dollars of marketing support for the movie —Burger King, Kellogg’s and Cingular Wireless commercials will feature such perennial “Star Wars” favorites as Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO and Darth Vader in their TV commercials. Pepsi has exclusive rights to feature Yoda in its spot. And two other promotional partners, PepsiCo.’s Frito-Lay and Masterfoods’ M&M’s, are featuring their own animated Cheetos and M&M’s brands dressed up as “Star Wars” characters in their TV spots.
While “Star Wars” characters have been featured in other advertisers’ TV spots to a limited extent in the past, this is the first time they have appeared in our world, not their own fictional galaxy, according to Lucas Licensing president Howard Roffman. It also is the first time Lucasfilm has allowed its world-renowned characters to be featured in so many different commercials at one time as the foundation of a campaign, he said.
“This is the first time we’ve really allowed people to go further in terms of using the ‘Star Wars’ characters as icons,” Roffman said. “Because they’re so much a part of the popular culture, we were willing to let the characters exist in situations other than the way in which you see them in the films. What we’re doing this time is a sign of the fact that these are cultural icons that have established themselves over the past 28 years and that allows you to have some fun with it.”
Marketers said it was a huge step for Lucasfilm — which has been extremely protective of its characters in the past —and it was prompted by the studio’s desire to land bigger promotional deals.
“Now they’re thinking it’s more important to get the word out about ‘Star Wars’ than protect their characters,” said Aaron Gordon, president of entertainment marketing firm Set Resources. “It goes against their initial policy of not selling out their characters or diminishing them by putting them in TV commercials.”
But Roffman said that “Star Wars” has been “commercialized from the very beginning” and that the company’s past concerns were about protecting the integrity of the characters, not overcommercializing them.
“Tie-ins and promotions have been sold for a long time,” Roffman said. “It has worked because people like ‘Star Wars,’ and they like buying ‘Star Wars’ product. When something becomes as well established as part of the cultural lexicon as ‘Star Wars,’ it gives you the license to take more liberty with it and have more fun with it. These film releases are events, and this is part of what people have come to expect.”
With mounting competition for promotional dollars and marketers’ demands for large-scale tie-ins on the rise, Lucasfilm might have felt pressured to offer up the “Star Wars” characters, marketers said. “There are about 20 to 30 companies that will do one or two film promotions each year,” Gordon said. “Every single studio is fighting over who gets these promotions.”
Less spent than on 'Menace'With such hit films as “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles” offering promotional partners custom animation for spots, the bar has been raised. While such actors as Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman — who play the central human roles in “Sith” — do not appear in any of the spots, the costumed characters do have starring roles. Some marketers said characters including Chewy, Darth Vader and C-3PO, all of whom go back to the first film that launched the series in 1977, are even more iconic and valuable for their spots than the real-life actors.
“Given the success of this movie franchise and all of the hype and excitement currently being generated as this last installment of the franchise is getting ready to launch, we felt it was very important for us to be able to use these characters not only in our commercials but in our content,” said Vance Overbey, executive director of advertising at Cingular Wireless.
As part of its promotion, Cingular is offering its 50 million customers access to “Star Wars” ringtones, games, video clips, graphics and animated screensavers as well as other content from all six movies. It is also selling Sony Ericsson handsets preloaded with exclusive “Star Wars” content and a RAZZ headset preloaded with 10 famous sound clips from the “Star Wars” saga. Cingular said it is the first collection of “Star Wars” wireless content ever to be released in the U.S.
Both Lucasfilm and its promotional partners declined comment on whether they had to pay additional fees beyond their marketing spends to use “Star Wars” characters in their commercials. But Cingular is believed to have gotten the rights to use the characters in both its exclusive content offerings and in its commercial spot — which features Chewy struggling to alter his monotone grunt for Cingular ringtones as Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2 and storm troopers impatiently wait their turn — in exchange for a multimillion-dollar media buy. Lucasfilm and all its promotional partners also declined comment on how much they were spending on media tied to the release of “Sith.”
Roffman said that while “Sith” has more promotional partners than any other “Star Wars” film, more media dollars were spent by tie-in partners on “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” in 1999.
Other brands tied into “Sith” also said it was important to have the “Star Wars” characters appear in their commercials. “It’s really a fantastic opportunity to be associated with such icons of pop culture,” Burger King senior director of national promotions and sponsorships Cindy Syracuse said. Burger King, which also partnered with Lucasfilm for the first two “Star Wars” movies, said it is running eight commercials tied to its adult promotion — a scratch-and-win game fixed to specially marked value meal packaging. Two other commercials will promote its kids meals offering one of 31 toys celebrating the “Star Wars” saga.
Syracuse said the global promotion in about 50 countries will close the “Star Wars” circle for the quick-service restaurant, which also is offering spacy green cherry ICEEs and star- and lightning bolt-shaped chicken tenders as part of its promotion. “We began the ‘Star Wars’ adventure with them almost 30 years ago, and we’re finishing the adventure with them,” she said.
Yoda goes exclusivePepsi said it was important to the company to have exclusive rights to the computer-generated Yoda to stand out from other promotional partners. “We felt we could differ from others by having Yoda in our fold,” said Frank Cooper, vp promotions, interactive and entertainment marketing at PepsiCo. “Yoda’s symbolic significance within the culture allows us to tie in our brand in a really powerful way.” Chewy also makes a brief appearance in the Pepsi spot.
Pepsi’s promotion includes an online sweepstakes with more than $1 million in prizes and a partnership with 7-Eleven Inc. to offer Darth Dew Slurpees and four limited-edition 3-D cups at participating stores nationwide.
The Kellogg’s promotion will feature “Star Wars” characters, cast members, premiums and giveaways across virtually all of Kellogg’s brands on more than 100 million product packages from April through June in 180 countries. It is only the second time Kellogg’s has done a global film tie-in.
For its promotion, M&M’s is daring consumers to go to the dark side with the first-ever dark chocolate M&Ms and creating a parallel “M-pire” of M&Ms dressed up as characters from all six Star Wars movies, including M2-D2 and M-3PO. Even Hasbro, the master toy licensee for “Sith,” has created a toy line of M&Ms dressed up as “Star Wars” characters. For its part, Frito-Lay is launching Twisted Cheetos snacks that temporarily change the color of your tongue to “Darth Vader Dark” or “Yoda Green.”