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Cartoon perfects the art of the tease

For kids marketers, one downside to coming off a successful promotion is trying to surpass the high watermark that you set the previous year. That was the challenge confronting Cartoon Network last fall as it prepared to map out the components for Toonami: Lockdown, the follow-up to its first Total Immersion event, Toonami: Intruder. The first promo, an integrated on-line and on-air campaign, had just closed to great fanfare. Hoping to goose its web and TV audience share during the critical back-to-school period, Cartoon had timed the launch of Intruder to coincide with the September 2000 debut of new episodes for the shows that air during its popular Toonami block. For the promotion, Cartoon produced on-air interstitial programming, as well as on-air and on-line spots, encouraging kids to visit the website to play an on-line game and enter a contest to win a variety of prizes.
November 1, 2001

For kids marketers, one downside to coming off a successful promotion is trying to surpass the high watermark that you set the previous year. That was the challenge confronting Cartoon Network last fall as it prepared to map out the components for Toonami: Lockdown, the follow-up to its first Total Immersion event, Toonami: Intruder. The first promo, an integrated on-line and on-air campaign, had just closed to great fanfare. Hoping to goose its web and TV audience share during the critical back-to-school period, Cartoon had timed the launch of Intruder to coincide with the September 2000 debut of new episodes for the shows that air during its popular Toonami block. For the promotion, Cartoon produced on-air interstitial programming, as well as on-air and on-line spots, encouraging kids to visit the website to play an on-line game and enter a contest to win a variety of prizes.

By the time it was all wrapped up, Intruder had drawn the largest TV and web audience in the network’s 10-year history. Client Nintendo was ecstatic with the results, convinced that Intruder had helped propel sales of Mario Tennis–the video game centerpiece of the promotion. Ultimately, Nintendo re-upped on the promo for a second year. So, if you’re Cartoon Network, what do you do for an encore? Well, for one, you don’t mess with success.

‘Fundamentally and strategically, Lockdown was the same as Intruder. The only difference was the execution,’ says Jim Samples, GM and executive VP of Cartoon Network Online. Far from cosmetic, the changes Cartoon and Nintendo made for Lockdown were crucial to meeting campaign objectives. Whereas with Intruder, Cartoon was promoting a single product, with Lockdown, it was charged with promoting Nintendo GameCube, the company’s much ballyhooed, state-of-the-art gaming console. Not that Cartoon was absolutely certain of that fact initially. While it knew that GameCube would more than likely be the focal point of the Lockdown contest, in order to meet its deadlines, co-creators Cartoon Network Online and Toonami Creative had to start production on the game and the interstitial components in October 2000, before Nintendo had finalized its decision.

As the very first consumer-directed marketing effort since GC was sneak-peeked at E3 in May, Nintendo saw Lockdown primarily as its teaser campaign, a way to raise awareness with gamers ages nine to 14 (Toonami’s core demo) before the product’s retail launch on November 18, says Nintendo’s director of advertising and promotions Robert Matthews. To be sure, Matthews et al. were pleased with the degree to which Intruder had incorporated on-line and on-air elements, which they felt were integral to courting gamers. ‘There’s much more value in doing something that taps into several media and fully surrounds kids and teens with your message because it affects their lifestyle more than a traditional ad would,’ says Matthews.

That said, for Lockdown, Nintendo wanted Cartoon to up the gaming quotient of the promotion so that it would mirror the strong gaming attributes of GameCube. ‘We wanted to make sure that we got across the key message that this system is exclusively about gaming, for gamers,’ says Matthews.

Whereas Intruder offered kids five basic on-line games, Lockdown was Cartoon’s first crack at a multi-level, multi-player game–more akin, in terms of its complexity, to a console title than your standard promotional on-line game.

For Lockdown’s on-air component, Cartoon created five interstitials starring TOM, the computer-generated host of its Toonami block. In the first episode, TOM’s ship, the Absolution, is immobilized by an unknown force, so TOM implores kids to go to Toonami.com to play the Lockdown game and save Toonami from annihilation. Like Intruder, each of the Lockdown interstitials contained codes and clues that kids could use to advance more quickly through the game’s different phases.

And while it’s true there are plenty of kids promos out there that feature both on-air and on-line components, most don’t feature the same level of interactivity, says Cartoon’s Samples. ‘What we have is one medium actually impacting your experience within the other. So when you watch on air and you get clues, it drives you on-line, and those clues open up a different level of experience for you, which, in turn, drives you back on air the next day–that’s interactive,’ says Samples.

Kids who registered before the promotion kicked off the week of September 17 could play the game individually, but Cartoon Network would automatically group their score into one of three teams. The Toonami site also featured a page that would allow players to check their own scores, as well as that of their team’s, daily. Boosting the hard-core gamer element, especially the intricacy level of the Lockdown game, was critical to improving last year’s results. ‘We’ve actually designed some of our stuff to make it harder–which may sound counterintuitive for a promotion–but kids today are so multimedia savvy that you have to challenge them or they’ll tune you out,’ says Samples.

Another major change Cartoon made was to lose the real-time aspect of last year’s promotion. With Intruder, kids were required to watch the show to retrieve clues and could only play the games on-line during Toonami’s two-hour block. Cartoon nixed that strategy after post-event research indicated that the concurrency of the promotion was detracting from kids’ on-air and on-line experience. ‘We felt that kids didn’t want to miss something on the show because they were fooling around with the computer, and vice versa,’ says Joe Swaney, a Cartoon Net spokesperson.

The move paid off. For the five-day period Lockdown ran, Cartoon.com boosted its page views by nearly 200% compared to the same period last year during the week Intruder ran. More than two million unique visitors checked out the site, representing a traffic increase of 83%. Ratings for Toonami’s block also rose 39%. New episodes of Dragon Ball Z did particularly well in the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. slot, snaring a 6.1 rating with tweens nine to 14, and tripling last year’s rating of 1.7.

From Nintendo’s perspective, though, measuring the effectiveness of the campaign was much more elusive. Since GameCube doesn’t hit stores until this month, it was difficult to determine the impact that Lockdown would have on sales. Jon Wagner, assistant media director and lead kids negotiator at Nintendo’s advertising agency Starcom, says he and his client looked at the number of unique web users and consumers that entered the contest. On both counts, Wagner and Nintendo were pleased, especially about the number of on-line entrants, which had tripled to 600,000 from Intruder’s tally. For further analysis, Nintendo conducted its own study during Lockdown, surveying kids on their GameCube awareness, as well as whether and when they expected to get their own console. While he says the results of that study also exceeded his expectations, Nintendo’s Matthews declined to divulge the substance of the data, which he says Nintendo will incorporate into its marketing campaign for GameCube as it continues to roll out.

Another key change Nintendo requested during the planning stages for Lockdown was to integrate GameCube more forcefully into its marketing than Cartoon had done with Mario Tennis on Intruder. Since the FCC’s kidvid laws prevented Cartoon from including any mention of its advertiser or its product in the TOM interstitials or on the Lockdown game, Cartoon had to create on-air spots promoting Lockdown that featured the console more prominently.

In the end, Matthews felt the commercials, which wrapped around the TOM eps, successfully transmitted the messages Nintendo wanted to communicate–namely GameCube’s unique shape and gamer-friendly attributes. Additional marketing support came via pop-up windows detailing the console’s specs, which would appear when kids went to register on-line for the contest, or when they had completed one stage of the game and were about to move on to the next.

This time around, Cartoon also changed the contest. Whereas last year’s Intruder offered five grand prize winners free trips to Japan, Lockdown promised more prizes, including Nintendo T-shirts, GameCube games and GameCube consoles.

For Cartoon’s Samples, it was a key change that helped make Lockdown more successful. ‘We’ve found that early on in a promotion, kids make a big decision whether they can win or not. If kids see that there are 600 ways to win something, versus one trip to Hawaii, they’ll participate more,’ says Samples.

While he concedes that given the pre-launch hype surrounding GameCube, kids would more than likely have demonstrated a high level of interest in Lockdown regardless of the supporting promotion’s inherent creativity, Starcom’s Wagner believes that the multimedia nature of Lockdown also serves as a very important research tool. In fact, all three companies decided to hire a third-party company to research how kids interact with multimedia promotions such as Lockdown.

‘As the multimedia platforms evolve–particularly in the kids promo business–we have to start asking ourselves, ‘How does this really work for us?’ ‘ says Samples. ‘You have to sit down together and decide what are going to be the measuring sticks. That’s the only way you’re going to be successful.’

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