Sponsors stage struck

Cost to play B'way varies wildly


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Now that the stagehands strike is over, the neon lights are back on Broadway, and so are the advertisers who sponsor many of its shows and the handful of brands featured in the productions.

Some advertisers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions to be associated with the Great White Way. Then there are other brands that spend nothing, with the huge fees associated with product placement in other entertainment media failing to gain a foothold in the theater district.

"Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which re-opened four days before the rest of strike-bound Broadway following a court injunction, features Citi Card logos and credits on the St. James Theatre marquis, in the show's program and in ads promoting the show. The sponsorship also gets Citi cardholders special benefits, including preferred seating, discount tickets and meet-and-greets with the cast.

"Legally Blonde," which re-opened with the rest of Broadway when the 19-day strike ended Nov. 29, touts numerous brands that appear onstage and in dialogue and lyrics, including Jet Blue, Red Bull, UPS, Sprint, Elle magazine and Lana Marks handbags.

While advertisers like Citi Cards typically spend about $200,000-$300,000 on sponsorships -- though the range is said to be anywhere from less than $100,000 to $1 million depending on the show and level of sponsorship -- the brands featured in "Legally Blonde" didn't pay a dime.

"Even though people think we got a lot of money for 'Legally Blonde,' the placements were already written into the show, and I didn't ask for payments because I know from history (advertisers) just don't do it," producer Hal Luftig said. "It's just not worth it to them.

"We also didn't want the show to be about getting money for product placement," he added. "What works in the show particularly is that the products used are indigenous to what these characters would use and certainly are products that this age demographic would use. Twenty-year-olds drink Red Bull, fly Jet Blue and read Elle magazine."

There are only two other brand integrations that Broadway veterans can even recall -- Spam in "Spamalot," which launched with the show's opening in 2005, and Gran Centenario tequila in Neil Simon's short-lived revival of "Sweet Charity" the same year. Only Gran Centenario was actually written into the script at the request of the advertiser as part of an overall sponsorship deal that reportedly cost the brand no more than a typical Broadway tie-in deal.

Spam paid no fees at all for being brought out on stage during the already scripted lyric "We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot" and instead provided support only in the way of promotions, publicity and two new "Spamalot"-themed flavors sold in the New York market.

Despite speculation at the time that product integration -- an exploding marketing tool in film, television, video games and Web content -- would make its way to Broadway, sponsorships remain advertisers' main association and marketing tie-in.

Of course, there also are a few advertisers such as American Airlines and Hilton Hotels that have forked over millions of dollars for naming rights to theaters to benefit from a much higher-profile connection to Broadway.

But because of the limited exposure of theater and its short-lived nature compared to film and television -- whose product stay alive on DVD -- advertisers are not particularly interested in product integration, nor are Broadway producers, who appear to be somewhat less willing to commercialize their productions than Hollywood filmmakers, studios and networks.

"It sounds like a good idea, but it never took off," said Nancy Coyne, CEO of Broadway marketing and advertising firm Serino Coyne. "There are only eight performances a week per show with only 1,000-1,500 people in a theater in a given night, so the numbers are nothing like what they are for a movie release. There are no metrics that can be applied that make sense to a Madison Avenue shop.

"In addition, you couldn't tell a writer of a Broadway show to mention a product. They wouldn't do it. There's more opposition to it in theater," she added.

Luftig said he never even considered generating placement revenue for "Legally Blonde." He noted that in film, the camera can zoom in on a Coca-Cola can, for instance, but in theater it's difficult for the audience to even be able to make out the name of a brand onstage.

"Sponsorship is much more lucrative on both sides," he said. "The show gets a bunch of money, and the product gets some directed marketing."

Other advertisers to sponsor Broadway shows include Fidelity Investments, which is sponsoring "Young Frankenstein" and also has backed "Sweeney Todd" and "The Fantasticks"; Sprint, which promoted "Wicked" and "Chicago"; and Hilton, which sponsored "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" at the Hilton Theatre during its 2005 Broadway run.

But Sprint has gone beyond just show sponsorship to build its affiliation with Broadway. The wireless provider became a Broadway and Tony Awards sponsor in 2004. Sprint also is the official wireless sponsor of Live Broadway -- the official toll-free hotline for Broadway shows in North America -- and its Web site, LiveBroadway.com. And it has partnered with the Broadway Channel to be the only wireless provider that features coverage of the Tonys.

"Sprint sees these sponsorships as important ways to support the arts while also increasing our brand recognition among a large audience of valuable current and potential customers, many of whom may also be interested in our mobile entertainment services such as song downloads and TV viewing," spokesman Aaron Radelet said.

American Airlines made a much more dramatic and costly move to associate its name with Broadway, forking over $8.5 million over 10 years to put its name in lights on the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre back in 2000.

"We wanted to make a statement that American Airlines is a major player in New York and is appreciative of all the things New Yorkers have done for American over the years," said Chuck Imhof, vp passenger sales at American Airlines' New York division. He said the donation was more about "corporate goodwill and responsibility" than about marketing, "though we don't deny there are marketing benefits."

American also ties itself to Broadway with a sponsorship of the Shubert Organization, which in addition to producing shows owns 16 Broadway theaters.

American Express, JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch are other corporate sponsors of the American Airlines/Roundabout Theatre, with Amex buying ads in the New York Times for each of the theater company's shows the past couple of years.

"One of the major benefits to American Airlines is their name on our theater on 42nd Street, which 1.5 million people walk by every day," Roundabout executive director Julia Levy said. "Our subscribers have said they are probably going to be more apt to purchase a product or service that supports Roundabout."

Marketing exec Coyne believes Broadway sponsorships do have more growth potential. If advertisers fund tours of shows to the rest of the country, it would give them much broader reach and make Broadway a more viable marketing tool.

"There are compelling reasons to become associated with Broadway," she said. "Product placement isn't one of them, but sponsorship to bring shows to the rest of America is."