PR Babylon

Every year as the holidays approached, my mother would leave a distinctly scented, wrapped-and-bowed box for the UPS man. And every year, the item within was the same: an Old Spice sampler set.

Every year as the holidays approached, my mother would leave a distinctly scented, wrapped-and-bowed box for the UPS man. And every year, the item within was the same: an Old Spice sampler set.

It was a nice gesture, to be sure, a plastic-topped gift box with a little bottle of cologne, after-shave, shaving cream, and a deodorant stick. But even in my early double digits, I knew two things my mother apparently didn't: one, that the UPS man preferred to leave packages, and two, that Old Spice was not cool.
 
I hadn't thought much about this until last year, when on an afternoon bicycle cruise through Barcelona, I happened to strike up a conversation with a young man who casually mentioned his job at P&G, working on a repositioning campaign for - you guessed it - Old Spice. The brand, he said while peddling past an array of oddly shaped and insanely colored buildings, was destined to emerge as the kind of grooming product the hippest of hipsters would wear, just like their fathers before them.
 
I wasn't sure that could ever be achieved, but this summer, it happened. In the branded-integration fest that was Sony Pictures' Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Old Spice stood out as the most effectively placed product of all those featured in the film - not a small feat for a movie packed with more than 90 placements, from Coca-Cola to KFC. Talladega Nights, if nothing else, has helped Old Spice become relevant.
 
We've all heard plenty about how Talladega Nights broke records in terms of branded entertainment and how it was actually created with NASCAR assistance from its pre-est pre-production stages. Without its barrage of logos and advertisements, said Tom Meyer, president of product placement firm Davie-Brown Entertainment, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "It wouldn't be considered authentic."
 
But Talladega Nights is worth visiting one more time if only to bask in the glory of its Mobius strip-like cross-promotional program, and to acknowledge the three brands that really stand out: a trio of placement superstars that have experienced an amazing ROI, even though there was no real investment, as none of them paid for placement.
 
Wonder Bread, which isn't a real-life NASCAR sponsor, hadn't had much prior experience in world of branded integration, either. Companies such as this are hard to find these days. According to a recent PQ Media study, global product-placement market spending increased 42.2 percent in 2005 to $2.21 billion and non-paid placement [values] rose 21 percent to $3.8 billion. And NASCAR itself is no slouch when it comes to placement. Per Ann Arbor, MI-based marketing analyst Joyce Julius & Associates, if a brand invests $15-$20 million to sponsor a car for a 36-race season, at an average 37 million viewers per major race, a top 25 finisher can garner the airtime equivalent of $7 million worth of 30 spots per race.
 
Wonder Bread's incursion into this arena comes at a critical time, considering its parent company, Interstate Bakeries, has been in chapter 11 since 2004: They needed a little pick-me-up. Wonder Bread arranged in-store and packaging promotions, licensing agreements, and online tie-ins and contents around the movie and from in-film mentions to logo placement on Ricky Bobby's (Will Ferrell's) racing suit, car hood, and even plaster arm cast. As such, the All-American white bread is said to have generated at least $4.3 million exposure during opening weekend alone. Ferrell has even appeared on CNN's Larry King, the MTV Movie Awards, and as the Grand Marshall of this year's NASCAR Nextel Cup race in his logo-emblazoned jumpsuit.
 
Perrier didn't create any promotions in support of its faux French driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen - in some circles, known better as Ali G), but its unexpected placement among the Dominos boxes and Taco Bell sacks was effective enough. Perhaps Perrier has a sequel proposition in mind. But Old Spice - both a real NASCAR sponsor and the movie sponsor of driver Cal Naughton Jr. (indie darling John C. Reilly) went full throttle with $2.3 million in TV, print, online, and race-venue promotions. And while analysts say the company has seen more than three times its return on investment, what Old Spice really got was what that guy in Barcelona was talking about: the much-desired, so elusive "coolness" factor. Now, Old Spice appeals to both the NASCAR crowd and to the crowd who makes fun of the NASCAR crowd. Even if the brand had paid for its integration, it couldn't have bought this.
 
That's enough about Talladega Nights; we have an entire new season of branded entertainment to attend to, including the likes of Fast Food Nation and Tenacious D in 'The Pick of Destiny'. We'll be busy.
 
I do have a tip for that UPS man, though, wherever he may be: Those Old Spice sampler sets? I know you still have them, on a shelf somewhere, collecting dust. Slap an "As seen in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights sticker on them, and auction them off on eBay. You'll make a killing.
 
And I'll thank my mother for you.

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