Creative Feature: Sleeper Hit

The Loch Ness Monster rises from the deep. A horse turns into a unicorn. Elvis cruises a lonely stretch of highway in a convertible. They’re images of fantasy, but for Volvo, they’re tied to a very real strategy.

The scenes are from a new 60-second Volvo spot playing in cinemas before this year’s blockbuster holiday movies. It’s a rare example of a commercial conceived from the outset to run only in theaters (the TV campaign, due in January, will be entirely different) and tailored to mesh thematically with the fantasy themes of the season’s biggest films.

Michael Lee, ecd at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, New York, says the shop looked at the fourth quarter’s crop of movies—Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Lord of the Rings, Die Another Day, Gangs of New York—and figured they would draw the same families and younger, single consumers that Volvo wanted for its first SUV, the XC90. So the agency created a fanciful spot, shot in Spain by Radish of Go Films, New York, in which XC90 passengers pass through fantasy worlds like those evoked in Harry Potter, Rings and even James Bond.

In a world of PVRs, cinema ads are an example of how “media has to start thinking,” Lee says. “You have to go after the people who can’t be got [in other ways].” He compares the strategy to that of a Super Bowl or Oscar buy—”using a high-impact medium in a high-impact way.”

More advertisers than ever are doing so, including Volkswagen (the “Bubble” spot from Arnold, Boston) and Nissan (a two-minute spot for the 350Z, cut down from a short film, from The Designory, Long Beach, Calif.).

Todd Siegel, svp of sales and marketing at Screenvision in New York, says the percentage increase this year in cinema ad sales is in the “double digits plus.” He attributes the rise not only to advertisers looking for alternatives to TV buys but also to the deals Screenvision can offer as part of its “upfront” format, new in 2002. For example, in the auto category, an advertiser can ensure exclusivity in a particular four-week flight with an advance purchase of a 60-second spot for that flight.

Still, production costs have been a sticking point, says Cliff Marks, president of marketing and sales at Regal CineMedia, a division of Regal En tertainment Group. Ads must be formatted for the big screen (if they aren’t originally), then dubbed and shipped to each theater, which can cost up to $175,000 extra, he says. (The 4A’s estimates that total production costs average $360,000.)

Regal’s answer is its new $70 million Digital Content Network, which will deliver via satellite custom-made pre-movie entertainment packages to screens in 41 of the top 50 U.S. markets. It reduces the cost of dubbing and shipping tapes, Marks says, and screens can be targeted geographically and by rating or movie title.

The network also offers original programming (interspersed with ads) to replace pre-movie slide shows. Regal plans to enlist four partners to provide content, and has just signed up the first: The NBC Agency. Regal also recently tested the system with a five-minute film tribute to U.S. sailors and marines.

Creatively, the medium has plenty of room to grow. Of the 48 60-second slots Screenvision sells annually, Seigel estimates that 17-18 percent are filled by “original” ads (ones created for the cinema or longer edits of TV spots). In Europe, he says, the figure is more like 25-30 percent.

But the creative had better be good, says Larry Pos taer. His agency, Rubin Postaer and Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., rolled out a cinema spot this fall showing the new Honda Accord out for a test drive with military-like planes swooping down for a glimpse. “You really are interrupting [people],” Postaer says. “You’d better be entertaining so people don’t throw popcorn at the screen.”