The cameras zoomed in on William Shatner as he raced a baby carriage through a crowded outdoor restaurant in Koreatown.
Dressed in a black suit, his hair neatly grayed, Shatner focused on the task at hand: looking genuinely interested in saving people money on airfare. Famous for playing Denny Crane in “Boston Legal” and for having been Captain Kirk in “Star Trek” on TV and in the movies, he was reprising his longest-running role: spokesman for Priceline.com Inc., which operates a travel website.
Passers-by gawked and took photos with their cellphones. Two Korean women who didn’t speak English petted his jacket, and one even tried to hug him.
The scene said it all. The 10-year relationship between Shatner and Priceline has buoyed the fortunes of both, and reminded advertisers that celebrities, however faded their popularity, can do wonders for a brand. Auto insurer Geico is one company that has taken the concept to town with the likes of Little Richard, Burt Bacharach and James Lipton.
“It’s an instant infusion of a personality,” said Mike Wolfsohn, creative director of Ignited, an El Segundo-based advertising agency.
In 1997, Priceline narrowed its list for a spokesman to two well-known television personalities: Bill Cosby and Shatner. Shatner got the nod because he was “futuristic” in his persona, said Chief Marketing Officer Brett Keller, and because “anyone holding a credit card aged 18 to 95 had heard of William Shatner and knew who he was.”
The first TV spots in 1998-99 featured Shatner as a lounge singer. While belting out tunes such as “Bust a Move” and “Age of Aquarius,” he spoke a few lyrics of his own, including, “I wanted to chill but making all of my travel arrangements was freaking me out.” Musician Ben Folds played the guitar in one of the spots and the two later worked together to produce Shatner’s spoken-word album “Has Been” in 2004.
The first spots were hits, parodied on Saturday Night Live. They “propelled Priceline from a second- or third-tier brand to a top-tier brand with extremely high brand awareness,” Keller said, adding that company surveys found that people were as familiar with Priceline as with online shopping giant EBay, and more than 90% of people asked had heard of Priceline.
Shatner said the wacky campaign helped his own career too.
“It’s possible that when I was being amusing in these commercials, David Kelly saw them and brought me to mind for a part in ‘Boston Legal,’ ” Shatner said on the set in Koreatown.
In 2004, after a drought in which Priceline commercials were his main work, Shatner was cast as quirky attorney Crane on the ABC drama “The Practice,” and since then has played the character on the spinoff “Boston Legal.”
Comments posted on the YouTube page of Shatner’s “Bust a Move” spot indicate the commercials might also have helped his reputation with fans. “Shatner is GOD,” said one. Two others were compelled to write, individually: “The Shat rules!”
Shatner said he turned down commercials early in his career “because they lacked purity or art” -- and then realized commercials could be art too.
“When celebrities come in and they’re not taking themselves too seriously, it works well,” said Steve Bassett, creative director at the Martin Agency, which created the Geico spots featuring aging actors mocking themselves.
Shatner said he didn’t make a whole lot of money in his early days as Priceline’s spokesman, taking most of his early compensation in stock options. Company rules prevented him from selling when the stock soared in the 18 months after its initial public offering. The stock soared to $974 a share in April 1999 in the heady days of the dot-com boom, but skidded with most other tech stocks to $15 a year and a half later. Shares of Priceline.com rose $1.86 on Thursday to $116.23.
In the spots that premier this month, Shatner plays The Negotiator, created by Sausalito-based ad agency Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, a batman-like figure who is summoned from his lair whenever a customer needs help. Shatner described the character as “terribly earnest, really dreadfully serious about getting a good deal.”
For a 76-year-old actor who portrayed a police sergeant on “T.J. Hooker” and an alien on “Third Rock from the Sun,” Priceline is a great employer, Shatner said (though he added that he doesn’t often use the site himself because it doesn’t sell first-class airline tickets).
“The ad campaign is great fun,” he said. “The public has responded.”