Advertising Takes to the Air : Southland Firms Are Pumping Up Giant Inflatables and Claiming a Big Chunk of the Industry's Revenues

Times Staff Writer

When a Kansas City radio station changed its format last year, it hired a marketing ace for advice. His suggestion: Do something big. The station, KCFX--nicknamed K-FOX--went out and did something big all right. It bought a three-story inflatable fox.

Morning commuters, however, weren't warned about the 30-foot-tall fox. And when the radio station hoisted the air-filled behemoth next to one of downtown Kansas City's busiest freeway exits, one ogling driver crashed his car through a guard rail. The result: a Kansas City highway traffic jam worthy of the Hollywood Freeway.

"It was unbelievable," said Lorri Stanislav, promotion director at KCFX. "Competing radio stations were all reporting that a giant inflatable fox was causing the traffic mess. You might call that negative publicity, but I say publicity is publicity." The next day, a disc jockey christened the $15,000 creature Foxzilla.

But Foxzilla is not alone. In fact, he is in good company with a 30-foot Ronald McDonald, a 20-foot Spuds MacKenzie and a 20-foot Noid from Domino's Pizza. A 15-foot inflatable Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket recently lured patrons to the opening of a fast-food franchise in China. And a pair of 30-foot inflatable Nike tennis shoes hung from the side of the Boston Marathon's headquarters hotel two years ago.

If you haven't seen an inflatable ad yet, you will. These promotional oddities--which can cost from $1,500 to $150,000 each--are made by a growing number of companies that specialize in manufacturing the so-called cold-air inflatable ads. Unlike helium balloons or hot air balloons, these inflatables use cold air that is constantly circulated by a huge fans at the base. Most manufacturers offer deals that include setting up and taking down the inflatables.

The industry, which is less than 15 years old, has spawned more than 30 competitors. And more of the Godzilla-sized publicity gimmicks are made in companies in Southern California.

Full-Blown Competition

In fact, three of the nation's biggest inflatable ad makers are headquartered in the San Diego area. The oldest is Robert Keith & Co. But it is seeing increased competition from Bigger Than Life Inc. of El Cajon and San Diego-based Softsign. Together, the three companies post combined yearly sales of about $8 million, according to industry estimates. That's a pretty sizable chunk of the market, inflatable ad makers say, because they estimate that worldwide annual sales of the entire business total less than $20 million.

That growth did not come easy. And the competition, particularly in the San Diego area, is fierce. In fact, lawsuits have frantically flown between San Diego's inflatable ad makers, and one, Robert Keith & Co., has been operating for several years under protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws.

All of the inflatable ad makers face the same challenge: convincing advertisers that inflatables are worth the time--and money. So far, the inflatable ad makers have been pretty successful. Why are these air-filled advertisements catching on? Inflatable ad makers say advertisers have so much difficulty getting noticed on television or radio that they often turn to inflatable advertising out of desperation. "Our industry is growing because of the frustrations of advertisers in general," said Michael Handler, president of Pie in the Sky, an inflatable maker headquartered in Redwood City. In fact, an estimated 30% of the nation's 500 largest companies have used some sort of inflatable advertising, according to industry estimates.

One of the most satisfied corporate users is Nike. In 1986, in fact, a pair of 30-foot inflatables that Nike used for corporate promotions was pictured on the front of the Beaverton, Ore., company's annual report. "It's a magnificent form of advertising," said Kevin Brown, Nike's director of corporate communications. "The only problem is changing the models every few years to fit our new shoe lines."

Others, however, have reservations about inflatables. "If there's a client with a new product launch, it can be a lot of fun," said Lisa Courtney, vice president and media supervisor at the Los Angeles office of the ad firm Wells, Rich, Greene Inc. "But most clients like to see results, and I don't think you can measure how many people run out to buy Budweiser after they see a Spuds MacKenzie inflatable flying around."

Indeed, inflatables can be great promotional tools for advertisers. They are often used best in locally oriented ad campaigns, said James Spero, senior vice president and media director at the Los Angeles office of the ad firm Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt. "But if you try to do it for a regional or national advertiser, the expense can blow you away."

Rust, Beer and Cookies

The working areas inside inflatable ad companies look like giant comic books come to life. Huge sheets of latex are carefully painted and sewn together by dozens of workers. Recently, for example, employees at Bigger Than Life were concurrently working on several 20-foot Hush Puppy puppies, a half dozen of Budweiser's flying Budmen, a couple of 15-foot Noids and a 40-foot Spuds MacKenzie dog. "Sometimes," said Doug Anderson, an artist at Bigger Than Life, "when I go shopping and I see the Noid or the Spuds MacKenzie that I just made I think, 'My God, it must be following me.' "

Then, there's Rusty Jones. He's the macho-looking mascot for the Chicago-based car rust-proofing company, Rusty Jones Inc., a subsidiary of Matex Corp. When the company recently decided to take the overalls off its mascot and place him in a tuxedo, that also meant redoing the dozens of 20-foot Rusty Jones inflatables that have popped up nationwide. "He's been to parades, races and plenty of grand openings," said Barbara Rhymer, a marketing assistant at Rusty Jones. "Now in a tux, he looks like he's ready for the opera."

Anheuser-Busch has purchased more than 400 inflatable ads during the past five years. "We can't keep enough on hand to service all the requests we get from our beer wholesalers," said Tom Mataya, manager of special events for Anheuser-Busch.

"It's an attention-getting device," said Mary Miller, McDonald's youth marketing manager. "And it works."

Then, there's Ernie the Elf, the mascot of Keebler cookies. Richard T. Dickson, president of Bigger Than Life, said: "Ernie the Elf is God to Keebler. You don't mess with Ernie."

But Dickson's company did. At Keebler's request, it made a 25-foot inflatable out of Ernie. And a barrage of Keebler officials came to inspect the finished product. They liked it so much, they eventually ordered 45 more.

Dickson formed Bigger Than Life three years ago, after a stint as a sales manager at Robert Keith. His company now posts annual sales of $3.6 million--a far cry from Dickson's lot in life in 1979, when he served a one-year federal prison term following a mail fraud conviction while at a San Diego real estate firm. "That's all behind me," said Dickson. What's ahead are company sales that he forecasts at $5 million by next year.

In between all the competitive jockeying, there is time for levity, said Ann M. Wawer, president and chief executive of Robert Keith. "If anyone heard me giving orders around here, they'd think I was nuts. You know, things like, 'Disney wants a Huey, Dewey and Louie. That means we'll have to put a hold on Ronald McDonald.' "

But it was Robert Vicino who was one of the first to sell inflatable ads to corporate sponsors in 1975, when he founded Robert Keith & Co. The one-time hot air balloonist has since moved on to make inflatable signs. And his new San Diego firm, Softsign, sells signs to companies from McDonald's to Coldwell Banker. Said Vicino: "They get a lot more attention than billboards."

But the object is not to have an inflatable ad on every street corner. "What makes them so special is the fact that they're not usually part of the scenery," said Wawer.

Indeed, only in a special effects studio has a gorilla ever climbed the Empire State Building. But it was Wawer's company that placed an 84-foot inflatable version of King Kong on the New York landmark in mid-1983. The promotional stunt backfired when the weather got nasty and the inflatable gorilla deflated. For days, the 2,000-pound hunk of latex hung over the building like some sort of ultramodern art piece.

"As it turned out, we got more publicity from that than anything we could have possibly planned," said Wawer. And the $100,000 Kong is still making the rounds as a promotional come-on at everything from county fairs to shopping center openings. As if the escapade at the Empire State Building weren't harrowing enough, the big beast collapsed when a bolt of lightning struck him at an exhibition in Tampa. "We just patched up the spot and filled him back up with air," said Wawer.

Without air, inflatables fold faster than tents. And that can prove embarrassing. Wawer's company, for example, recently hoisted an inflatable ad of a beating heart atop a Santa Ana Freeway billboard. The promotion was an attempt to garner publicity for a new heart center at Downey Community Hospital. But when the heart stopped beating on Christmas Day--because of a mechanical problem--the gimmick left some hospital officials with heartburn.

One of the inflatable industry's biggest enemies, however, is high winds. When gusts top 25 m.p.h., most inflatable makers suggest that advertisers deflate their inflatable ads. Another problem is that some cities view inflatable ads as eyesores and strictly limit their use.

But perhaps the most unexpected problem is the desire by some, often as part of a prank, to secretly remove these short-lived landmarks. A 20-foot Ronald McDonald inflatable in the Denver area, for example, recently showed up atop a local high school.

How did he get there? Well, no one knows for sure. The culprits left few clues--just several giant-sized footprints painted up the side of the school.

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