December 10, 2007 / 2:02 PM / 12 years ago

Broadway slow to embrace product placement

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Now that the stagehands strike is over, the neon lights are back on Broadway, and so are the advertisers who sponsor many of its shows and the handful of brands featured in the productions.

A Broadway street sign hangs in New York's Time's Square, November 29, 2007. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Some advertisers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions to be associated with the Great White Way. Then there are other brands that spend nothing, with the huge fees associated with product placement in other entertainment media failing to gain a foothold in the theater district.

“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which re-opened four days before the rest of strike-bound Broadway following a court injunction, features Citi Card logos and credits on the St. James Theatre marquee, in the show’s program and in ads promoting the show. The sponsorship also gets Citi cardholders special benefits, including preferred seating, discount tickets and meet-and-greets with the cast.

“Legally Blonde,” which re-opened with the rest of Broadway when the 19-day strike ended November 29, touts numerous brands that appear onstage and in dialogue and lyrics, including Jet Blue, Red Bull, UPS, Sprint, Elle magazine and Lana Marks handbags.

While advertisers like Citi Cards typically spend about $200,000-$300,000 on sponsorships — though the range is said to be anywhere from less than $100,000 to $1 million depending on the show and level of sponsorship — the brands featured in “Legally Blonde” didn’t pay a dime.

“Even though people think we got a lot of money for ‘Legally Blonde,’ the placements were already written into the show, and I didn’t ask for payments because I know from history (advertisers) just don’t do it,” producer Hal Luftig said. “It’s just not worth it to them.”

There are also practical considerations, he added. In film, the camera can zoom in on a Coca-Cola can, but in theater it may be difficult for the audience to make out the name of a brand onstage.

There are only two other brand integrations that Broadway veterans can even recall — Spam in “Spamalot,” which launched with the show’s opening in 2005, and Gran Centenario tequila in Neil Simon’s short-lived revival of “Sweet Charity” the same year. Only Gran Centenario was actually written into the script at the request of the advertiser as part of an overall sponsorship deal that reportedly cost the brand no more than a typical Broadway tie-in deal.

Spam paid no fees at all for being brought out on stage during the already scripted lyric “We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot” and instead provided support only in the way of promotions, publicity and two new “Spamalot”-themed flavors sold in the New York market.

Despite speculation at the time that product integration — an exploding marketing tool in film, television, video games and Web content — would make its way to Broadway, sponsorships remain advertisers’ main association and marketing tie-in.

Of course, there also are a few advertisers such as American Airlines and Hilton Hotels that have forked over millions of dollars for naming rights to theaters to benefit from a much higher-profile connection to Broadway.

But because of the limited exposure of theater and its short-lived nature compared to film and television — whose product stay alive on DVD — advertisers are not particularly interested in product integration. Nor are Broadway producers, who appear to be somewhat less willing to commercialize their productions than Hollywood filmmakers, studios and networks.

“It sounds like a good idea, but it never took off,” said Nancy Coyne, CEO of Broadway marketing and advertising firm Serino Coyne. “There are only eight performances a week per show with only 1,000-1,500 people in a theater in a given night, so the numbers are nothing like what they are for a movie release. There are no metrics that can be applied that make sense to a Madison Avenue shop.

“In addition, you couldn’t tell a writer of a Broadway show to mention a product. They wouldn’t do it. There’s more opposition to it in theater,” she added.

Other advertisers to sponsor Broadway shows include Fidelity Investments, which is sponsoring “Young Frankenstein” and also has backed “Sweeney Todd” and “The Fantasticks”; Sprint, which promoted “Wicked” and “Chicago”; and Hilton, which sponsored “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the Hilton Theatre during its 2005 Broadway run.

But Sprint has gone beyond just show sponsorship to build its affiliation with Broadway. The wireless provider became a Broadway and Tony Awards sponsor in 2004. Sprint also is the official wireless sponsor of Live Broadway — the official toll-free hotline for Broadway shows in North America — and its Web site, LiveBroadway.com. And it has partnered with the Broadway Channel to be the only wireless provider that features coverage of the Tonys.

American Airlines made a much more dramatic and costly move to associate its name with Broadway, forking out $8.5 million over 10 years to put its name in lights on the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre back in 2000.

Broadway marketing executive Coyne believes sponsorships do have more growth potential. If advertisers fund tours of shows to the rest of the country, it would give them much broader reach and make Broadway a more viable marketing tool.

“There are compelling reasons to become associated with Broadway,” she said. “Product placement isn’t one of them, but sponsorship to bring shows to the rest of America is.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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