World: Stuart Elliott in America

One of the hottest trends on Madison Avenue - branded entertainment - has suffered a setback that may require the help of a superhero to overcome.

The executives who run Major League Baseball, the sport long called America's national pastime, have been forced to modify significantly a deal to promote the upcoming opening of the summer movie Spider-Man 2 from the Columbia Pictures division of Sony. Among the myriad elements of the promotion was a plan to decorate bases during a weekend's worth of games next month with red spider-web logos from the film.

But a day after the existence of the campaign was disclosed by The Wall Street Journal, baseball's moguls did a humble, perhaps humiliating, about-face, cancelling that part of the promotion in the face of vociferous outcries from fans, sports writers and even some marketing executives.

It was "like going from being sound asleep to a full sprint", Dean Bonham, a sports marketer, told The New York Times. For something as precedent-shattering as ads on the bases, he suggested, executives ought to have tested the concept, either in practice games during what's called spring training or in the games played by teams a notch below Major League calibre.

But instead of easing their way into the plan with a "crawl, walk, run" strategy, the executives' motto seemed to be "ready, fire, aim". The controversy over the plan gave baseball a black eye, just as the 2004 season was getting underway.

To be sure, baseball stadiums have been shrines to commerce for decades.

Billboards cover almost every conceivable space. Loud commercials run on video screens in between replays of game highlights. New York Yankees fans of a certain age still can recall when the team's TV and radio announcers saluted home runs as "Ballantine blasts", after the beer brand that sponsored the broadcasts. And logos of charities and causes have festooned the bases during many Major League games, most recently on Mother's Day last week to raise funds to fight breast cancer.

But never before has a profit-making enterprise been peddled to consumers from the portion of the field on which the game actually takes place - much less one that will compete with baseball. After all, when the movie opens the weekend of 30 June, consumers in the 15 cities in which games are to be played will have to decide whether film or sport will get their entertainment dollars. Would Coca-Cola take money from Pepsi to tack up Pepsi posters on the fronts of Coke vending machines?

Speaking of Coca-Cola, the idea for the promotion came from the longtime Coke agency McCann Erickson Worldwide, according to the baseball executives, which has both baseball and the Sony movie division as its clients.

McCann Erickson "came to us with the opportunity to work with Sony on how to leverage this phenomenal audience they have and this phenomenal audience we have", Jacqueline Parkes, the senior vice-president of advertising and marketing for baseball, said in an article about "Spider-Man weekend" that as of last week was still posted on the baseball website (www.mlb.com).

That should have set everyone's spider-sense a-tingling. Never go ahead with a campaign that inspires the use of the word "leverage".

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