Media Tie-Ins: What the Mobile Industry Can Learn from Ovaltine

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 19 October 2004

The stories, games, and characters driving youth culture can also drive the uptake of communications technologies.

In the 1930s, the Ovaltine company stormed US markets riding one of the most wildly successful promotional alliances of all time. As sponsor of the popular kids’ adventure series Radio Orphan Annie, Ovaltine offered a series of Annie-related premiums available exclusively to those listeners who redeemed the coupons they found inside the lids of Ovaltine jars. If your parents were raised in America, chances are they still remember the line of Radio Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pins that still stand as one of the most successful promotions in media history.

Only by obtaining one of these pins could eager Orphan Annie fans decode the secret message delivered at the end of each episode. Despite popular myth to the contrary, these messages were typically not so shamelessly promotional as “Drink your Ovaltine.” Rather – and quite significantly for us – they were tied only to the content of the Orphan Annie program itself, by hinting at the events of the next day’s program. These pins not only offered kids social currency, but they also provided a new avenue for a relationship with Annie. They enhanced the experience of the original media property while increasing sales of drink mix.

There might be a lesson in all this for those hoping to promote wireless devices to young people: to make your media tie-ins count, take the emphasis off your product, and focus instead on upscaling kids’ experience of the media they already love. Cell phones can be both the Ovaltine and the decoder ring. This is an enviable position that has yet to be fully exploited.

In America, so far, cross-promotions of cell phones has been limited to the rebranding of existing services as part of larger lifestyle brands, like Virgin or Nike. Equally primitive are the “free prize inside” efforts of Kellogg’s and Cingular. Corn Pops-munching children can win a new cell phone and some airtime if they give the right answers to a text-messaged riddle. Of course, if they’re receiving text messages then they’re already phone users. And while cereal boxes boast life-size photos of the Sony Ericsson T237, the small print warns that “actual phone may vary.”

So, whose promotion is this, anyway? Why, Kellogg’s, of course. They’re trying to associate themselves with what they believe to be the hip, youthful culture of cellular telephony. The television ads say, “A day without Corn Pops is like a day without a cell phone.” But there’s something missing in this relationship. It doesn’t even have the same superficial eye-candy appeal as, say, Spiderman’s bright red face on the box. The phone companies involved, meanwhile, hope to get a few new customers or, in this case, change some kids’ loyalties from one service provider to another.

But the promotion has no traction, particularly with youth culture, because there’s no story. No icon. It’s two commodities – phone service and sugar cereal – each betting that the other has some mysterious hold on kids. There’s no mythology, no organic connection between device and story, no decoder ring! That’s what happens when you leave promotions to the promotions departments.

Cross-promotion is only a dirty word (or two words, actually) when you’re not giving any truly added value to your customer’s experience of one or both things being tied together. Wireless companies must realize that they are not the come hither. They can supply the decoder ring, but they can’t be Annie.

It should be no mystery to any media company that technologically challenging media campaigns can still have mass appeal. Just take a look at the ilovebees phenomenon, a promotion for the game Halo 2 that itself is a very bizarre game. Utilizing everything from GPS-coordinated pay-phone calls to a “hacked” blog, it engages its confused participants in a treasure hunt for clues as to what the heck it is. Likewise, the most successful cell phone cross-promotions in the United States, to date, involved the voting on reality shows such as American Idol – where the phone’s capabilities give viewers unique ways of interacting with content they already love.

As might be expected, Japan’s mobile industry is further along in its effort to tie its technologies to popular games and stories, linking the two both functionally and mythologically. Take the alliance of NTT DoCoMo and game-developer Square Enix. The two have collaborated to offer a mobile installment of the mega-selling Final Fantasy video game exclusively on the NTT DoCoMo 900i-series or higher phones. Better still, the phone’s camera plays an integral role in the game, allowing users to create “materia” with which to play. So you only get to play this exciting new chapter in an already popular game universe by having the right phone, and the phone’s capabilities are matched perfectly to the game, itself. Now, we’re getting somewhere.

Bandai, the Japanese toy company that invented our contemporary notion of cross-promotion by developing TV shows with toy tie-ins already in mind, has been adding merchandising opportunities to an existing cartoon hit, Precure, and its associated game, Card Commun. Now, the game system also features an inexpensive clamshell mobile device that scans cards and allows for simple P2P communications. No surprise that a very similar device is also used by the girls on the show to transform themselves into monster-battling super heroes.

In both cases, as well as in the most successful strategies yet to come, wireless devices proliferate by making themselves indispensable to the total enjoyment of an existing pop culture phenomenon – rather than trying to become one themselves.