Crossing Desert to Get Dessert: Advertisers Go to New Lengths

Imagine you're a longtime ice cream manufacturer in New England. Sales are down. And the market environment is "rocky road," with competition from the likes of Edy's, Breyer's, Ben & Jerry's, and Haagen-Dazs.

Brigham's Inc., was in that position when it approached Dweck & Campbell, a New York advertising agency. What resulted was a "stealth" campaign aimed especially at young adults.

Quirky TV ads were just the beginning of this post-modern publicity quest. The nightly commercials unfolded a storyline that, in turn, became the subject of ads on public buses, handwritten fliers in laundromats, and an 800-number contest to win a year's worth of ice cream.

The campaign was not only a success for Brigham's, but is part of an advertising trend. Innovative formats are becoming more popular, say industry observers, as advertisers vie for attention in a message-cluttered world. The lines between information, entertainment, and advertising will continue to be blurred, very often in inventive and sneaky ways.

"We're really trying to get people to talk about our advertising - a kind of word-of-mouth mysteria," explains Corinna Case, publicist at Dweck & Campbell.

The Brigham's campaign started with a classified ad in the International Herald Tribune that read: "ATTENTION ICE CREAM FANATICS. Brigham's is the best ice cream in the world. But it's available only in Boston, Massachusetts. Tell us how far you would travel and the extremes you'd go through to get Brigham's Ice Cream." At the bottom was a fax number.

The winner of this little contest was Abdallilah Abul Jabri, "Abu" for short, an Egyptian who had visited Boston as a child with his grandfather. He wrote that he would ride a camel across the Sahara and then take a boat over the Atlantic. Lured by a lifetime supply of ice cream, Abu agreed to make the journey and have it filmed.

Dweck & Campbell turned the footage into a series of 30-second television "documercials" chronicling Abu's journey: The sandstorm. The uncooperative camel. Trying to persuade a boat owner to take them across the Atlantic. The ads ran during Seinfeld reruns on Boston's WSBK-TV. Each ended with the words, "Brigham's - available only in Boston."

The agency supplemented the TV spots with local promotions such as distributing Abu T-shirts on college campuses, putting up bus and subway posters saying "Watch Abu Tonight ...Ch. 38, 7 p.m.," and setting up a toll-free phone line for callers to state Abu's up-to-date mileage and be eligible to win Brigham's ice cream for a year. Five winners were selected from among 2,000 callers.

IN addition, 40,000 fliers were posted in public places in the metro region. They ranged from hand-written pleas saying, "Help! I need a kennel for my camel while I'm in Boston, If you can help, please call ..." to police-style drawings asking, "Have you seen this man?"

The result was almost Lettermanesque. Abu became a celebrity of sorts, and the campaign operated on a local buzz. People would go into Brigham's stores and ask, "What is going on?" Brigham's, in turn, says it experienced a hefty sales increase, up 24 percent from the same time last year - at a time when the industry in general was experiencing a slight decline.

The cost of the campaign, which wraps up this month, was nominal by industry standards: 18 TV spots produced for $50,000; the total media campaign for $138,000.

As for Abu, he made it to Boston on May 23, clocking in at 6,150 miles. After relaxing - and having lots of Brigham's ice cream - he returned to Morocco, where he is a tour operator. Now he will get weekly shipments of Brigham's ice cream for life.

Ideas are being tossed around for the next "Journey to Boston" contest, Case says. Although she's not giving any details, she says it will probably not involve crossing the Sahara.

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