LICENSING: CHARACTERS FOR HIRE - A much-loved band, cartoon character or film star can help give your advertising added mileage But, Jim Davies warns, watch out for the pitfalls involved.

The ubiquity of character licensing doesn’t even occur to you until you have children. You want to buy a babygro without the Teletubbies, Winnie the Pooh or Postman Pat all over it? Forget it.

The ubiquity of character licensing doesn’t even occur to you until

you have children. You want to buy a babygro without the Teletubbies,

Winnie the Pooh or Postman Pat all over it? Forget it.

Such invasive ambient advertising starts early; the poor tyke won’t have

a clue who these characters are, but they may just plant a subliminal

seed that will, at a later date, lure him towards the full monty of

keyrings, pencil cases and figurines bearing the same likeness.

These days, even sticking plasters are decorated with the Lion King.

When, oh when, is Muji going to launch a baby range? To the

manufacturers of trinkets and T-shirts, the endorsement of such

instantly recognisable characters is obvious, but these icons have, over

the years, also come to play their part in advertising. You’re not only

buying into a well of accumulated goodwill and credibility, but also

able to refer to a past history.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s commercial for Tunes was a case in point;

here, the Star Wars uber-villain, Darth Vader, is offered a lozenge to

soothe his throat by a rather fey Death Star commandant. If the audience

wasn’t already familiar with the setting and the fact that Darth Vader

speaks as if he’s been smoking 50 a day since he started behind the

intergalactic bike sheds, the gag wouldn’t have worked. Similarly, BMP’s

Doritos spot featuring the Simpsons paterfamilias, Homer Simpson,

assumes you know Homer gorges himself and that his catchphrase is


In a wider promotional context, items derived from hit movies or TV

series - stickers, plastic figurines, toys and so on - are often used as

’premiums’, free from high-street fast-food chains or with packets of

crisps or cereals.

The relevant agencies then have to produce the necessary back-up

advertising, alerting the public to the availability of these goodies.

Often these limited-period deals will have been struck by clients and

major film studios in advance of the campaigns. ’It’s a mutually

beneficial strategy,’ explains Gary Shoefield, director of sales and

development at Copyright Promotions, one of the country’s largest

licensing companies. ’Usually the promotion will be launched around an

’event’ movie (like Disney’s Hercules or the forthcoming Godzilla) so as

well as shifting more product, you’re also putting more bums on cinema

seats.’ Copyright Promotions is fortunate enough to own the rights to

some of the UK’s biggest perennial earners; everything from the X-Files

and Mr Men to Spiderman and Star Wars.

Sounds good. So, if you had a particular character in mind for an ad

campaign, how would you go about securing their services? Well, the

first thing you need to do is a little research. Find out the name of

the production company - check the television and movie trade titles or

scour the Internet - and they’ll tell you who owns the copyright. Large

concerns, the Disneys and Warners of this world, tend to have their own

licensing departments; smaller companies may have agents to handle their

’properties’. In practice, this initial legwork tends to be undertaken

by agency producers.

Nora Adams, TV administrator at BMP DDB, who has extensive experience of

tracking down rights owners, says: ’You’ll probably find all you need on

the packaging of the relevant video, but sometimes you have to use TV or

journalistic contacts. It’s fascinating sleuthing around until you find

the right people.’ She adds one small note of caution: ’Sometimes more

than one person lays claim to a character. In these cases it’s best to

find an alternative; it’s not worth getting involved in legal


When the licence holders have listened to your proposals, they’ll take a

view as to whether or not they want to play ball. This will depend on

several factors; how it may reflect on the character concerned, any

potential conflicting interests and, of course, whether the price is

right. ’There has to be a certain amount of exclusivity, otherwise

people end up feeling short-changed,’ Shoefield explains. ’I’ll be

honest; not everyone is going to get a Star Wars licence from us.’ ’We

have to be protective of our properties and ensure that they aren’t

misconstrued or used inappropriately,’ adds Aysha Kidwai, licensing

executive at Saban, the guardian of Power Rangers, Sweet Valley High and

Caspar, among others.

Costs will depend on the reach, life-span and rotation of your


A three month, Europe-wide blitz with 20 slots a night, for instance,

will cost you far more than a couple of showings in the Grampian


Usually, the final quote is determined as a fraction of the overall

media spend, though, as BMP’s Adams points out, if you’re dealing direct

with a film studio, nothing is set in stone so to an extent you’re free

to negotiate your terms. Licensing companies tend to have the financial

side of things pretty well buttoned down, so don’t expect to be able to


If you think these conditions are rather one-sided, you ain’t seen

nothing yet.

Inevitably, licence holders will want a say in how their character is

depicted - artwork, colours, voices and any other representation of the

property will have to be fully approved before the ad can proceed to the

production stage. On the plus side, by plumping for a fictional

spokesperson, you can guarantee you won’t have to deal with any

potential scandals, always a risk with celebrity endorsement, as the US

advertisers who’d signed up Pee Wee Herman found out to their cost when

he was discovered, allegedly, stroking his pee wee in a seedy porn

cinema. Cartoon stars are also less inclined to throw wobblies or raise

their fees. Having said that, there’s something of a fine line between

character licensing and personality endorsement, and it’s telling that a

company like Copyright Promotions represents sports celebrities (such as

the Liverpool midfielder, Jamie Redknapp, and the Manchester United

manager, Alex Ferguson) and showbiz luminaries such as the boy band

Boyzone, alongside characters like the Pink Panther and Dennis the


Boyzone, who featured in a Sugar Puffs ad through Young & Rubicam, are

an interesting case. While the lead singer, Ronan Keating, has appeared

solo in ads for Diet Coke and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, much of the Boyzone

merchandise, although aimed blatantly at young girls, doesn’t feature a

photograph of the band at all. Instead, you’ll find a

constructivist-style logo and the name of the band on the usual

collection of stationery in Woolies. In effect, this logo helps to

position the band as a brand, blurring the distinction between reality

and iconic representation.

So, if Boyzone is a brand, what are the implications for consumer brands

seeking their endorsement? The Spice Girls have lent their name to the

limited edition of Elida Faberge’s deodorant, Impulse Spice, and the

Polaroid SpiceCam. Suddenly, you’re getting into ’Hotpoint recommends

Persil’ territory.

Isn’t this clouding the proposition and therefore confusing the


Or is it a simple mutual trade-off, prime time exposure for the

personality in return for high-profile approval for the product? ’All

that matters is that you’re getting some borrowed interest for your

brand,’ says Chris Forrest, managing director of the planning agency,

Forrest Associates. ’You look for a sympathetic fit between the product

and the personalities. It’s important that the personality doesn’t swamp

the brand, no matter how much the chairman’s wife fancies the


Forrest cites the classic Cinzano campaign featuring Leonard Rossiter

and Joan Collins as an example. Although the ad proved extremely popular

with the public, there was just one small problem - everyone thought

they were advertising Martini. Endorsement by a personality or a

fictitious character is one thing, but securing the rights to show a

piece of existing film footage in a commercial is quite another.

Clearance is required not only from the film company, but also actors,

scriptwriters and, where applicable, choreographers and composers. This

may sound a bit belt and braces, but it’s worth erring on the side of

caution, as legal wrangles can be both expensive and time-consuming.

Fortunately, help is at hand; research companies such as Reed & Casement

will do all the spadework for you, as it did for DMB&B earlier this year

when it made a commercial featuring famous double acts to celebrate the

merger of Lloyds and TSB. Laurel and Hardy was just one of the couples

on the wishlist, and it took Reed & Casement about five months to sort

out a deal with their estate. ’We’re the negotiators in the middle,’ its

director, Joanne Mirzoeff, explains. ’This way we can keep everybody


Commercials using news clips, such as AMV’s commercial for Yellow Pages,

with memorable footage of Uri Geller and Harold Wilson, or its ’one to

remember’ campaign for BT, tend to be a little more straightforward. The

BBC and news agencies are geared up for such opportunities and indeed

have contracts ready for interested parties.

Ultimately, hitching a ride with the famous through a character licence,

personality endorsement or film clips comes down to time, money and


But there is a way around it by creating your own character. Once you’ve

launched your Honey Monster or Tony the Tiger, who knows? The

merchandisers may come knocking at your agency’s door asking for a



The Spice Girls may have unceremoniously dumped their manager, Simon

Fuller, but his legacy will live on - for a while at least - in a string

of licensing deals from Polaroid to Asda.

The Mirror likes to think these merchandising deals have benefited the

economy to the tune of pounds 6.4 million in tax alone. ’How dare the

anyone suggest the Spice Girls have anything but British interests at

heart!’ writes an obviously smitten hack. The girls’ former management

company, 19 Management, has certainly been keeping advertising and

merchandising agencies busy. Consolidating on campaigns for PepsiCo

brands Pepsi and Walkers,the Spice Girls recently launched the SpiceCam

for Polaroid, backed up by a Bartle Bogle Hegarty commercial which shows

them being thrown out of a convent after evidence of their misdemeanours

has been captured on camera.

Elida Faberge took the opportunity to launch Impulse Spice in five

suitable varieties (lavender for Baby Spice, tangerine for Sporty Spice,

and so on) in a deal reported to be worth pounds 1 million.

Over Christmas, the stars are set to take centre stage in a campaign for

Asda - patting their bums no doubt - touting a range of some 40 Asda

products that will have Spicy images peppered all over them. The

confectionery manufacturer, Chupa-Chups, is developing a range of sweets

based on the band; Cadbury is introducing Spice Girl chocolate bars and

there have been unconfirmed rumours of a forthcoming BT advertising

campaign. You’d have thought this blatant promiscuity would have

jeopardised future ventures, but not a bit of it.

One industry insider believes the fab five will have coined pounds 200

million in advertising deals by 2000.’ I applaud the way their

management has handled them,’ Gary Shoefield, director of sales and

development at Copyright Promotions, says. ’They have created characters

out of them that could pave the way for toy deals and even an animated


They know there’s a limited lifespan in the pop business and are

exploiting the opportunities while they can.’

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