OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In the 40 years of his existence, the Spider-Man comic book character has gone by myriad monikers such as web-spinner and wall-crawler. Now, with the record-shattering performance of the Columbia Pictures movie based on him, Spidey has earned a new sobriquet: Spokes-star.

The film took in $114.8 million in its opening weekend, breaking the mark set only last fall when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made $90.3 million. Though Columbia, part of the Sony empire, opened Spider-Man on more than 7,500 screens in 3,615 theaters, there were "sold out

signs at some box offices.

The results thrilled a lengthy list of marketers and toy makers that paid princely sums to bask in the borrowed interest by sponsoring the movie, selling licensed merchandise or placing products within the film.

They include the Cingular wireless telecommunications company; the Dr Pepper and Diet Dr Pepper soft drinks owned by Cadbury Schweppes; Hershey, the confectioner; Kellogg, for cereal and pastries; and Reebok, for Spidey sneakers.

The tie-ins, now targeting consumers at stores as well as movie theaters, range from sweepstakes to T-shirts to CD-Roms. The movie has scenes featuring Dr Pepper, Tropicana orange juice and Rolaids antacid. There are cross-promotions such as a Sony PlayStation 2 video game and toys from Toy Biz, a division of Marvel Enterprises, which publishes the Spider-Man comics.

Cingular is even offering "downloadable ring tones, graphics and face plates

with Spider-Man themes for cellphones. (Is using a masked phone like having an unlisted number?)

But like the curious case Sherlock Holmes solved because the dog did not bark, Spider-Man is perplexing Madison Avenue because it's performing so spectacularly though its promotional partners have been downplaying their peddling.

The campaigns have been visible, but nowhere near as hyperbolic or intrusive as those for other recent blockbusters such as Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

For example, none of the giant fast-food chains signed up to offer Spider-Man toys or kiddie meals as with The Lord of the Rings, which had a deal with Burger King, or Phantom Menace, which was sponsored by three - count 'em, three - fast feeders, the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell divisions of Tricon Global Restaurants. The best Spider-Man could muster was an agreement with two regional chains, Carl's Jr and Hardee's.

The paucity of promotional firepower speaks volumes about how marketers always try to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, or maybe it's how they always hurt the one they love. The piling on that inevitably follows when advertisers smell an impending hit often accomplishes the opposite of what was intended, turning off potential customers, especially the crucial younger moviegoers who disdain anything they perceive is being deliberately or overaggressively pitched to them.

Perhaps it was the lesson learned by Tricon after Phantom Menace, which for the first time united all three company brands for one humongous campaign. The chains' sales actually fell during the multimillion-dollar megablitz. The result: Tricon has sworn off movie marketing in favour of making food the star of its promotions.

Well, if the Spider-Man sponsors tire of their self-restraint, they can always whoop it up when the sequel comes out in 2004.