Thursday, January 19, 2006

ADV: Perry Ellis dresses up an old ploy

The sportswear company Perry Ellis has long employed the traditional formula for men's fashion advertising: Take one handsome man, photograph him posing in an exquisite setting, and repeat.
But now Perry Ellis has decided to replace its leading man (most recently, the actor Jerry O'Connell; before him, the actor Paul Rudd) with something less predictable: a comic strip.
The new ad campaign features a male character in a series of settings that emulate real life, from pondering a job offer in a new city to approaching an attractive woman in a bar. (Naturally, the star of the comic strip is trim, good-looking and dressed in what appears to be Perry Ellis.) The ads are slated to run as four-page inserts, beginning in the March issues of more than a dozen U.S. magazines, including GQ, Cargo and Esquire.
Using comics in advertising is an old strategy that may be on the verge of a revival, thanks in part to the rising popularity of graphic novels among young men. Even Hollywood has caught on in recent years, adapting the graphic novels "Sin City" and "A History of Violence" to commercially successful films. And the target customer for Perry Ellis is typically a thirtysomething man who the company hopes will be drawn to the playfulness of a comic strip with the grown-up content of a graphic novel.
"Our guys are right on the fringe of Gen X, and they've grown up with this type of thing right in front of them," said Neil Powell, the chief creative officer for Margeotes Fertitta Powell in New York, which created the campaign. "And we were also looking to create an ad campaign that was a form of entertainment."
The campaign, costing $15 million, is the most visible effort for the agency since the merger last summer of Margeotes Fertitta & Partners with Powell. It also is the first major fashion account for an agency that is mostly known for its creativity in other areas, including work for Bacardi, Coca-Cola and Starbucks. (Margeotes Fertitta Powell's parent company is MDC Partners, the same holding company that owns part of Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, two agencies renowned for quirky, creative work.)
In addition to running in magazines and on billboards, the comics will eventually appear in two nontraditional places: imprinted on escalator handrails in about 20 shopping malls in major cities nationwide.
Pablo De Echevarria, the senior vice president for marketing at Perry Ellis International, said that the company has created three installments of the comics so far and is hoping that the strategy will be effective enough in the long term to continue the series.
"It can become our own language," De Echevarria said. "But when you do something, however groundbreaking it might be, the consumer becomes inured to it. One of the problems with originality is that you have to keep being original."
Comic strips in advertising peaked in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, catering largely to people whose grasp of English was poor but who could follow the actions of comic strip characters. More recently, comics have appeared in campaigns to promote less wholesome products (R.J. Reynolds once tried to lure Marlboro smokers away to Camels with ads resembling comic strips, and Miller Brewing Company has run a short-lived ad campaign for Miller Lite in men's magazines.)
But in today's advertising climate, most marketers are condensing their messages to match readers' ever-shortening attention spans.
Perry Ellis is asking readers to do the opposite: Linger over a comic strip to absorb the message and even follow the continuing series in several monthly installments.
"We're challenging several conventions about fashion advertising and communications on general," said Michael Kantrow, the president and chief executive at Margeotes Fertitta Powell. "It's hard to get people to pay the same attention to advertising than they do to content, but we're hoping that this will blur the line there."
Later this spring, the comic strip Dilbert is to appear in a direct-mail advertising campaign for the U.S. Postal Service. Scott Adams, Dilbert's creator, said in an e-mail that comics can be effective for advertising a service that has no obvious physical form.
"The comic makes visual some aspect of each service so people can get their brains around it," Adams said. "And if they laugh, that's a good association too."
He added:
"Comics are a good match for products that are not inherently fascinating. Men's pants look pretty much alike to me."

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