SBJ/October 29 - November 4, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

ESPN dares to be funny again, but puppets will lend a hand in campaign

When the going gets tough, the tough put on a puppet show? Such is the case with ESPN, whose promotional TV campaigns from ad agencies Wieden & Kennedy, New York, and Ground Zero, Santa Monica, Calif., have long been considered the best in the biz. Since the September tragedies, one of the questions hanging over an industry already battered by a yearlong ad recession has been whether brands that used humor as the cornerstone of their creative can continue in that vein. Keep in mind that in the past, ESPN has put Peter Gammons in drag for "Baseball Tonight" ads and invented a blueberry festival to hype the Summer X Games.

With ESPN's concepts for its first campaign since the terrorist attacks now complete, humor is still OK.

Accordingly, ESPN is using puppets and alt-sports athletes to pump up tune-in for its Winter X Games in February. Wieden & Kennedy seized upon the fish-out-of-water dichotomy of the Winter X Games being staged in tony Aspen, Colo., to create a series of spots. Illustrating the expected nose ring vs. nose in the air culture clash will be the fictional Children's Puppet Theater of Aspen.

All the spots are filmed on a puppet stage. Thus, one spot has an anthropomorphic version of motocross racer Mad Mike Jones tearing through the lobby on his cycle. When informed by the hotel manager that motorized vehicles aren't allowed inside the hotel, a puppetized Jones replies, "For $400 a night I can do whatever I want."

In another, a middle-aged lounge siren, perhaps wistfully, accuses skier Jonny Moseley of flirting with her. The campaign is due to be shot next month in San Francisco. Aside from the usual airings on the three ESPN networks, there will be buys on youth-oriented cable nets like MTV and Comedy Central.

A stylized print campaign in alt-sports pubs and winter sports venue signage will also support.

"Right now, it is difficult to know exactly what's appropriate from a creative standpoint," acknowledged ESPN ad director Spence Kramer. Despite the foray into puppetry, "We always try to be the guy sitting on the couch next to you watching a game, rather than a huge network pulling the strings."

ANHEUSER-BUSCH JOINS DEVELOPMENT LEAGUE: NBA and WNBA sponsor Anheuser-Busch has signed on as one of the first corporate sponsors of the NBA's new National Basketball Development League. A-B sports marketing potentate Tony Ponturo referred to the deal as "a one-year test-drive."

"We thought it was worth learning with the NBA if there will be interest in this property from our wholesalers in smaller markets," he said. The new league tips off Nov. 16.

NFL JOINS PATRIOTIC LICENSING PARADE: The NFL steps into the red, white and blue licensing game for the first time with caps combining logos for the New York Jets, New York Giants and Washington Redskins, along with the U.S. flag and the FDNY and NYPD acronyms that have become a fixture on New York sporting sidelines. A retail exclusive for the Reebok caps has them sold only at Modell's. Outside of the brick-and-mortar world, they'll be available at nfl.com and Home Shopping Network and through the NFL catalog.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@amcity.com.

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