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Jokers Hit Taco Bell : Batmaniacs Swiping Movie Tie-In Cardboard Cutouts in Hugely Successful Promotion

Times Staff Writer

The Caped Crusader as an inspiration to crooks?

For the past few weeks, a bunch of jokers have been invading Taco Bell outlets, swiping cardboard cutouts of Batman. The enormously popular cutouts are all part of Taco Bell’s $10-million summer promotion--a Batman Collector Cup giveaway that has shattered company sales records for promotional tie-ins.

Taco Bell has tied into movies before--by handing out “Star Trek” glasses, for example. But Batmaniacs have made the latest promotion by far the chain’s biggest and best yet, said Bob Phillips, company spokesman.

Take the Taco Bell store on Barranca Parkway in Irvine. Three weeks ago, the restaurant began displaying the larger-than-life Batman cutouts and handing out plastic Batman cups to customers who buy a large soft drink.

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The day after the promotion started, two people nabbed an eight-foot-tall Batman cutout and sprinted away. But most Batfans are more law-abiding and pay for their bat paraphernalia.

Since the promotion, sales have been “unbelievable,” said Frank Compani, manager of the Irvine store. “They come in for Batman cups, then they buy a meal with it.”

At Compani’s store on Barranca, that translates to a sales jump of at least 25% since the promotion started. Where the store ordinarily sells no more than 600 large drinks each day, “we’re going through about 1,000 a day now,” said Compani.

With the movie “Batman” predicted to do boffo business even before it opened, executives of Irvine-based Taco Bell knew the fast-food company’s promotional tie-in would be popular.

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After all, the Warner Bros. flick is this summer’s biggest moneymaker, with earnings so far soaring to $167.6 million. The wholesale domestic revenues for official Batmania items--including key chains, raincoats, hats and towels--are projected at up to $250 million.

So it was a sure bet for Taco Bell to shell out undisclosed bucks for the licensing rights.

But holy taco shells! Even Taco Bell didn’t realize it would be giving away Batman cups as fast as they’re delivered to the restaurants.

Taco Bell had planned on giving away about 10 million Batman cups by the time the promotion ends late this month. Instead, the company estimates that nearly double that amount--or up to 21 million drinks--already have been sold.

In fact, the cup manufacturer, Louisiana Plastics of Louisiana, Mo., has been operating around the clock at full-capacity to keep up with the Batcup demand, said Bloom.

Taco Bell’s competitors, Del Taco and Naugles, meanwhile, launched a summer promotion of their own at about the same time that Taco Bell began its Batman cup give-away.

Del Taco and Naugles, both owned by Costa Mesa-based AWR II Inc., began selling 10-cent burritos with any soft-drink purchase several weeks ago. Since then, the number of customers coming into the restaurants has climbed 15% to 30%, said company President Wayne Armstrong.

So far, Taco Bell’s Batman promotion has not affected the Del Taco and Naugles restaurants, Armstrong said.

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But that doesn’t mean that Taco Bell’s Batcraze isn’t a tough act to follow.

To give you an idea of the demand, consider that 8% to 16% of Taco Bell customers ordinarily buy 32-ounce soft drinks. Since the promotion began, a sampling in the Los Angeles market shows that half of the customers are buying the large drinks.

Taco Bell doesn’t have data yet on how the Batcraze has affected sales of other menu items at the chain’s 3,000 restaurants nationwide. But “we’re sure it has affected some of the other products,” said Elliot Bloom, Taco Bell spokesman.

And burritos and tacos aren’t all that customers are walking out with. Batmaniacs from Orange to Alabama are still walking off with those eight-foot Batman cutouts, Batman banners and Batman counter-displays.

At this point, said Phillips, “we’re hoping maybe Batman himself will show up at the stores to rescue himself from overzealous fans.”


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