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Holy Tie-In! Batman Bores Consumers Just as Retailers Prepare for Film

Atop research firm recently asked people across America to rate their favorite cartoon and comic strip characters--including Batman. But the responses were the kind that could drive the folks at Warner Bros. and DC Comics batty.

After all, the film company not only plans to release a $30-million Batman motion picture in June, but through Warner Communications’ licensing arm, more than 100 licensees have paid fees to manufacture Batman products that range from plastic car mats to thermos bottles decked with pictures of the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, DC Comics also has big plans to market Batman during this, his 50th anniversary.

But in the national survey of 1,800 consumers of all ages, Batman rated a real dud.

In fact, the California Dancing Raisins--who topped the list--proved to be more than four times more popular than Batman. Indeed, Batman couldn’t even muster an “average” score with consumers but rated about even with such snoozers as Moon Mullins, the Incredible Hulk and Beany and Cecil. Worse yet, Batman even fell slightly below such luminaries as Deputy Dawg, Betty Boop, and yes, even Chicken Little.

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“Don’t buy any stock in Batman,” said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluation Inc., the Port Washington, N.Y., research firm that conducted the survey. “In fact, if I had a chance to make a Batman lamp or an Alf lamp, I’d run like hell to Lorimar to make an Alf lamp and run the other way from Batman.”

Maybe so. But don’t expect these results to drive Batman back into the bat cave.

In fact, one licensing expert predicts that Batman accessories could post retail sales exceeding $150 million over the next year. And officials at Warner Bros. and its sister company, LCA Entertainment, say Batman still has plenty of fight left. In fact, they say, enthusiasm for Batman generally goes in seven-year cycles--and that the latest cycle will peak about the time the movie starring Michael Keaton as Batman is released this summer.

“I’m not worried about it,” said Barbara Sims, director of marketing at LCA Entertainment. “Bat man is a long-term classic character who has his highs and lows. Remember, this is not a character that has a theme park named after it.”

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DC Comics, which is also owned by Warner Communications, seems certain that Batman accessories will fly. The company has even licensed Ballantine Books to publish a coffee table book on Batman’s history that is expected to retail for more than $35.

“We see this as the year when Batman has evolved from a cartoon character into a fashion statement,” said Mary Moebus, vice president of licensing at New York-based DC Comics. “Batman is moving out of the trendy under-culture into the mass market.”

Certainly, Batman’s new popularity with teen-agers got a lift when a member of the popular rock group U2 wore a Batman T-shirt in “Rattle and Hum,” a documentary film about the group’s 1987 world tour. Even the makers of the T-shirt were surprised because they didn’t pay anything to have the shirt so prominently displayed in the film.

Now, some big retailers are climbing aboard the Batman bandwagon. Both the Macy’s and K mart retail chains recently began to stock limited amounts of Batman T-shirts and sweat shirts. And very soon, Batfans will be able to purchase everything from Batman suspenders to Batman eyeglasses.

One licensing official predicts that there’ll be a big demand for Batman accessories. “I think the Batman movie will create a lot of interest in Batman merchandise,” said Murray Altchuler, executive director of the New York-based Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Assn.

But Altchuler, who once worked for LCA, where he licensed the Batman TV series, said the reaction may not be exactly what Warner Bros. expects. “If I was seeking a license for Batman, I’d be quicker to jump on board with the old Batman property than with the new movie.”

It seems that the Batman in the motion picture is a far different--if not darker--character than the campy Batman most people remember from the 1960s TV series. The two even dress very differently. The motion picture Batman is much like the comic book character, who wears a dark outfit, while Batman from the TV show wore a bright blue outfit with a flashy logo painted across his chest. What’s more, Batman’s ever-popular sidekick, Robin, doesn’t even appear in the movie.

That’s why one computer software company has decided to create a Batman video game that will be modeled after the comic book series and not the new film. “We’re riding the wave of Batmania, but we’re not affiliated with the movie,” said Jim Whims, general manager of San Jose-based Data East USA Inc.

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Next week, Data East plans to ship the $25 video game to toy chains nationwide. And Whims, who co-founded Worlds of Wonder, says he hopes to sell up to 60,000 games. “When you get past the Batman name, all the player looks for is how the game plays,” said Whims. “If it doesn’t play well, it will quickly get killed.”

As a precaution, some retailers are buying into both the old and new Batman characters. “We basically hope that consumers who don’t buy one will buy the other,” said Elizabeth Wardley, marketing services manager at Applause Inc., a Woodland Hills company that makes novelty items from popular TV and film characters.

For example, Applause is making two completely different sets of Batman key chains. One set, which will be hung from a display with a dark background, features the Batman from the new movie. But a second set, which will be sold from a bright blue display, features Batman and Robin from the TV show.

For years--even before the motion picture was talked about--three stores on Melrose Avenue have been stocking Batman accessories. Their wares, however, are mostly tied in to the 1960s TV show that starred Adam West.

“Batman has been a hot item for some time,” said Chuck Ware, manager of Hans Korthoff Antiques. “We started selling the stuff because our customers asked us to.” Among the “antique” Batman items his store sells is a plastic Batmobile that sold for $15 when it was made about 20 years ago. Today, it fetches $125.

Nearby, the store Wacko has been selling Batman buttons, badges and T-shirts for some time. “It has nothing to do with the film,” said Len Haynes, assistant manager at the store. “Punk and New Wave kids like the old Batman stuff.”

But the Melrose shop Chick A Boom claims to be one of the first stores in the country to carry a full supply of old Batman artifacts. “When we started stocking this stuff 10 years ago, we were nearly laughed off the planet,” said Chris Scharfman, who owns the store.

Among the items is a Batman talking alarm clock that originally sold for about $15. It now retails for $125. And if you want an original Batman wastebasket, well, that’ll set you back $66.

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“There’s a new generation of kids who are just getting into Batman,” said Scharfman. “But the question is, will the new Batman stuff be made so shabbily that it won’t even be collectible?”

Circuit City Decides to Review Its Agency

Is Circuit City changing its mind about which ad agency is “the intelligent choice?”

The home electronics chain--which calls itself “The Intelligent Choice” in its advertising--has apparently decided that it is not completely satisfied with the Los Angeles ad agency, Admarketing, which created that slogan. The estimated $25-million account was put up for review last week, according to Jack Roth, president of Admarketing.

“All I know is, they said they’d talk to a few other people,” said Roth, who added that he was surprised by the review but hopes to keep the account.

Executives at Circuit City were tight-lipped about the move on Monday. Greg Jones, the City of Industry-based company’s new vice president of marketing, declined to comment on the review. But some Los Angeles ad executives openly questioned why Circuit City--which has seen its sales nearly quadruple in the four years Admarketing has handled the business--would consider the agency change. Said Admarketing’s Roth: “I guess they feel they’d be remiss if they didn’t look at and listen to others.”

TV Stars Just Can’t Come Out for AdClub

Officials at the Orange County Advertising Federation will be the first to tell you that passing the age 30 has been rough.

The association, which is also known as the AdClub, turned 31 this year. So executives figured that it might be fun to use “thirtysomething” as a theme to Friday night’s awards dinner. In fact, a flashy video show prior to the awards presentation will feature all kinds of clips from the popular TV show. After all, two stars from the TV series happened to run a fictional advertising agency that recently bit the dust on the show.

But the stars wouldn’t come out for the AdClub. Nearly 1,000 people are expected to attend the banquet at the Irvine Hilton. Yet when the AdClub asked four different stars from the TV show to host their gala, they were turned down flat. “The studio said they’re so far behind in filming, they couldn’t tear them away,” said Bob Guzman, executive director of the AdAwards ceremony.

Spots to Put New Accent on Pic’N’Save

For several years, Spanish-language TV advertisements have positioned the Los Angeles discount store chain, Pic’N’Save, as a place with the lowest prices around.

Last week the discounter handed its $1-million account to the North Hollywood ad agency Castellanos Latina Advertising, which also handles Latino advertising for the Broadway. And Julio J. Castellanos Sr., president of the firm, says a new ad theme for the 145-store chain will begin later this year. “We want to show people that besides getting low prices, they also get good quality,” he said.

Firm Says No Soap to Laundromat Billboard

It’s not exactly the sort of ad you’d expect to see on a highway billboard. And as far as the folks at the outdoor advertising firm Patrick Media are concerned, you won’t.

The subject matter is pretty tame: a woman knitting a sweater and a man sipping coffee while seated on a bench. But there is one catch--they’re both naked. Well, their faces and other crucial areas are concealed by black strips. But even the headline on the billboard ad for the San Jose chain Oasis Laundry plays off their nakedness: “Some People Who Won’t Appreciate Our Laundromats.”

But Patrick Media, the billboard company, told the laundry no soap. “The last thing we need to do is get special-interest groups screaming at us,” said Gregory Gall, account executive at Patrick Media Group’s Oakland office. “We’re losing boards every year through new ordinances.”

Meanwhile, the San Francisco ad agency that created the billboard thinks the brouhaha is silly. Said Cathi Mooney, chairman of Mandelbaum, Mooney & Associates: “I’ve seen billboard ads for airlines that are a lot more risque than this.”


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