Top Stories from the Business/Finance pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, December 1, 1997
A Cartoonist Creates New Kind of Cyber Pitch
Plugging Users Right Into Tower RecordsCyberScape
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
LOS ANGELES, California - At the end of the George Liquor cartoon show on the Internet, the star scolds his nephew, Jimmy the Idiot Boy, for showing up at breakfast with uncombed hair.
George then turns to the computer user and says, ''You like my show? Well you can thank Tower Records. So buy a CD, will ya? Keep us on the air. You don't want to see an idiot starve, do you?''
The browser then automatically logs the user on to the Tower Records site and a page about a band called The Jerky Boys.
While Internet users are known for their outspoken resentment of intrusive advertising, this new kind of cyber pitch from the cartoonist John Kricfalusi may even create some fans.
That's because it brings them a new dose of work from the innovative animator who created the U.S. television hit in the early 1990's, ''The Ren & Stimpy Show.''
Often considered the most avant garde of the new wave of cartoons like ''The Simpsons'' and ''Beavis and Butthead,'' ''Ren & Stimpy'' was also among the shortest lived but did create a cult following of sorts.
Now Mr. Kricfalusi is back, and this time he's hawking products on the Internet.
While he was trying to make a new start after selling the rights to ''Ren & Stimpy'' to Nickelodeon in 1995, he discovered Macromedia's Shockwave Flash digital animation technology. The software allows animation to be viewed over the Internet with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer, in a quality only slightly less detailed than film, but with sharper color.
Mr. Kricfalusi then realized he could produce his George Liquor series without the support of a major studio and on his own Web site at www.spumco.com (named after his animation company). After financing the first two segments himself, he then got the Tower sponsorship for his new Internet advertising method.
''The Internet ad business is constructed around banner ads,'' Mr. Kricfalusi said in his office crowded with drawings and dolls of George Liquor, Ren & Stimpy and The Three Stooges. ''Until recently banner ads were just stale little buttons that nobody would look at. What sponsors would really like is to get people to their Web page.''
That, he said, is nearly impossible without forcing them.
''On the radio,'' he said, ''if you're listening to Howard Stern, all you really want is to listen to Howard Stern. You don't want to hear the 20 minutes of commercials they give you every half hour. But you don't want to miss anything, so you sit through them and you wait for Howard to come back. You're stuck. You've got no choice. Television's the same: No choice.''
Mr. Kricfalusi turned for inspiration to the techniques of the past. In the early decades of television and radio, it was common to have programs named after their sponsors, with the stars of the programs plugging the product - ''The Chase & Sanborn Show,'' starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with W.C. Fields as a frequent guest, for example.
''It's not some cold commercial that is obviously a commercial and that makes you get up from the couch and go make a sandwich,'' Mr. Kricfalusi said. ''If Jack Benny's going to do the commercial and he's going to do it funny, and use his writers to write the commercial, you stick around for it. You pay attention to it. And you're laughing the whole time, so you're enjoying the commercial. And then you associate your enjoyable experience with the product.''
The concept is similar to the now-ubiquitous ''infomercial'' shows on American television that combine commercial advertising with ''programming.''
These forms of advertising are not used for children's programming on television. Jim Spaeth, president of the Advertising Research Foundation, a think tank in New York that aims to improve advertising methods, said studies show that young children are incapable of distinguishing between when a cartoon character is in a show or in a commercial.
But it is not regulated on the Internet, and George Liquor is not aimed at children.
Mike Farrace, vice president of publishing and electronic marketing for Tower Records, said the company is hoping to attract 15- to 30-year-old males for the Jerky Boy's records. He likes the ad ''because it brings the customer right to us,'' but he said they decided to sponsor the show mainly because of the cartoons.
''It's an irreverent cartoon and it really goes for just the dumb yuks,'' he said.
But what about those resentful Internet users?
''You'd certainly have to be pretty repressed to get angry because you're on a free Internet site and looked at a free cartoon, and the guy said, 'Brought to you by Tower Records,''' Mr. Farrace said.
Tower is paying Mr. Kricfalusi's cartoon company a flat fee for the advertisement, plus a commission on any sales of Jerky Boys records ordered from the site.
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