Try a new box

A few years ago, when everyone was casting around for a revenue model to support Flash-animated Webisodic properties, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi was busily stealing a page from Joe Barbera's playbook of 50-some years ago by pitching the agency...

A few years ago, when everyone was casting around for a revenue model to support Flash-animated Webisodic properties, Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi was busily stealing a page from Joe Barbera’s playbook of 50-some years ago by pitching the agency crowd in New York, trying to convince cereal companies to pony up the production costs.

Spumco’s original site ( launched in September 1997 with one of the first episodic animated series on the Internet, The Goddam George Liquor Program. A few years later, with the aim of targeting families, the site was plotted for launch, and many advertising models were envisioned along the way. One premise was that a two-and-a-half-minute toon segment would play, followed by a 30-second animated commercial using the same characters from the toon, effectively plugging the advertiser sponsoring the shorts.

Back when Barbera pitched TV toons to Madison Avenue, animation had previously been in the realm of theatrical shorts or features, so it was quite a sales job. Spumco founder Kricfalusi hoped that like Barbera, whose sale of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear to Kellogg spawned the TV toon industry, he’d be successful at convincing advertisers to bite at a new marketing opportunity.

Judging by the current content of the Spumco site, where Pussy Hunt is prominently featured, that plan hasn’t worked out yet, and given the general dot-bomb climate, few have had Barbera’s gift of compelling advertisers to go that far out on a limb.

However, Spumco is still plugging away on its sponsored family site. Some headway has been made in that the Spumco crew hooked up with Quaker Oats on the March relaunch of Quisp, the retro cereal with its eponymous spokestoon. Spumco did a panelized comic strip on the back of the cereal box which ends in a cliffhanger. For the finale, Quisp fans are flipped to where they are entertained by a short toon, not to mention a zany Quisp history and Quisp merch ecom. Known as the first Internet cereal (it sells more online than it does at retail), this all makes great sense. And given the current climate for the traditional commercial, is a harbinger of things to come.

The question is, how far and how fast?

Risk aversion has long been one of the main barriers to experimentation with new marketing models, especially ones that involve technology that has yet to reach mass penetration. That killed a lot of Web sites, it’s delayed dabbling in interactive TV, and it’s caused numerous opportunities to be passed up, including straightforward options like tying into long-form TV entertainment or product placement. However, in the face of threats to the tube, like TiVo and Replay, which promise to effectively eliminate TV commercial viewing (see story, page 9), not to mention the continuous fragmentation that comes with every new TV service launched, advertisers who continue to turn their backs on alternative models do so at their peril.

How many sports franchises are going to opt for pay per view? How much harder is it going to be to create buzz for new series in next year’s ever-more-crowded environment?

Sheila Byfield, U.K.-based director of consumer insight for MindShare, was a speaker at a recent BBM event. In MindShare’s viewing habits study, it proved what most feared happened to their commercials by gathering data from video cameras that record what’s happening in the test families’ living rooms while the TV was on. She played footage from their TVcams that shows the TV playing to empty rooms, people talking, people reading and the usual snack grabbing during commercials.

In the 1960s, when P.J. Reynolds and Miles Laboratories signed on to anchor The Flintstones, the first non-kids-only TV toon, it was considered hugely risky at the time. It seemed to work out OK. Maybe now it’s time to think outside the box and get serious about taking a few more big leaps of faith.

Cheers, mm

Mary Maddever

FYI: For fans of Kricfalusi looking to fill the Ren & Stimpy void, Spumco series The Ripping Friends, about a group of genius ‘manly men’ who go around foiling criminals in a futuristic city called RIPCOT (Really Impressive Prototype City of next Tuesday), launches soon on Fox Kids.