In kids TV today, a branded ‘environment’ is a key programming strategy, and one such example is Cartoon Network’s Toonami, an afternoon franchise that airs Monday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and features the channel’s best action-adventure titles, including Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Robotech and Thundercats. The two-hour block ties these shows together with an atmosphere that combines popular music, 3-D graphics and a robot host, creating a haven for older kids.
Recognizing Toonami’s potential as a promotional vehicle, Cartoon Network’s marketing department began the search for the perfect Toonami contest shortly after the franchise premiered in March 1997. To reflect the fast-paced excitement of the franchise, the marketing team agreed that the contest’s payoff would need to be radical, something dangerous and exhilarating that would thrill some, while frightening others-something like a roller coaster contest.
Mirroring the barrage of action cartoons featured daily within Toonami, the contest would feature a mind-numbing parade of roller coasters and thrill rides. Twenty winners with three guests each would be sent to five roller coaster parks in five days in five different locations across the U.S. The pace of the trip alone would make the winners dizzy before they stepped foot on a ride.
Dubbing the promotion ‘Coaster 2 Coaster,’ Cartoon Network sought national promotional partners with similar target audiences and a kindred brand image.
The first choice to host the adventure was Six Flags Theme Parks, the largest regional theme park company in the U.S., best known for its roller coasters. The promotion fit Six Flags’ target audience and was in step with the company’s advertising message of extreme excitement.
Dairy Management Inc., whose ‘got milk?’ advertising campaign had recently featured a little boy trading in his job as brownie tester to become a roller coaster tester, also signed on, creating a national ‘Coaster 2 Coaster’ ad for the May issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids.
In addition to the 20 grand-prize winners, Cartoon Network encouraged participation by awarding 100 first prizes of Toonami duffel bags and merchandise, as well as 1,000 Digimon virtual pets supplied by a third partner, Bandai America, to 500 second-prize winners.
Kids could enter in three ways: by sending a postcard to the network, at the network’s AOL site (Keyword: Cartoon), or at the participating Six Flags Theme Parks. The only entry requirement? Height. Thrill rides have a 4’6′ cutoff. Combined, more than 75,000 entries were received.
To give cable operators an opportunity to involve kids on a local level, Cartoon Network secured 268 cable affiliate partners (representing 18 million subscribers), who each ran 150 cross-channel spots on designated networks in exchange for a guaranteed local winner of a ‘Coaster 2 Coaster’ prize package. The prize pack included four season passes to the nearest Six Flags, along with Toonami merchandise. The affiliate promotion contributed an estimated US$3.9 million in local advertising for ‘Coaster 2 Coaster.’
As grand-prize winners were selected, the logistical roller coaster kicked into overdrive. Marketing Mix, an entertainment marketing agency specializing in television and film promotions, helped Cartoon Network to facilitate the transportation and organization of the more than 80 winners, and Kobin Enterprises, an integrated entertainment and sports marketing agency, assisted Six Flags in arranging park visits, hotel reservations and lunch.
The winners, from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, and as near as Commerce, Georgia, gathered in Atlanta on July 5, 1998, at the Airport Hilton. They were given their official Toonami gear, including a different T-shirt for each day of the trip, and their ‘Coaster 2 Coaster’ credentials designating their all-access status at the parks.
Over the next five days, the Toonami chartered plane carried the winners to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey; Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois; Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California; Six Flags Astroworld in Houston; and Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta.
Each morning, Six Flags opened an hour early, giving the winners exclusive ride time on the country’s best roller coasters. The group enjoyed VIP park privileges each day until they once again boarded the Toonami bus headed to their next chartered flight to theme-park heaven.
The contest also attracted local newspapers and news crews that recorded each leg of the adventure. One winner even provided a nightly phone-in update of the trip for his local television station’s newscast.
On the journey’s final night, Cartoon Network held a celebratory banquet, awarding every kid with a commemorative ‘Thrill Seeker’ certificate. Then, the trip-weary winners showed no signs of fatigue as they stormed the park for one last ride.
Since the promotion, Cartoon Network has heard from several of the winners. Everyone agrees it was an overwhelming experience they will never forget, which is the desired reaction. The goal is to establish lasting relationships with kids by offering the kind of fantasy prizes that they dream about-promotions that leave kids wondering, ‘Wow, what will Cartoon Network come up with next?’
Paul Siefken is senior publicist at Atlanta, Georgia-based Cartoon Network.