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Coleco Plays The Odds, Pays For Ads For 'Alf'

August 26, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Get ready for ALF-mania.

The premiere of NBC's "ALF" is still nearly a month away, but a Christmas toy is already being developed in the likeness of the sitcom's star--a puppet who looks like a two-legged dog and talks like a Borscht-Belt comic.

If the series is a success, ALF T-shirts, Halloween costumes, lunch boxes and even an electronic talking ALF will soon follow.

In itself, the licensing of products based on ALF is not unusual. Though sitcom characters typically aren't marketed as often as action characters like "The Six Million Dollar Man" or "The A-Team's" Mr. T, ALF--an A lien L ife F orm who crash-lands on Earth in the first episode--seems like a natural.

What is uncommon is toymaker Coleco Industries' decision to throw its weight so heavily behind the series "ALF"--before audiences have a chance to see it. Coleco, maker of the Cabbage Patch dolls, agreed to foot the bill for a massive ad campaign promoting the brand-new series. The ads will make no mention of the upcoming toys.

Full-page ads will appear in US, People and USA Today with newsstand dates coinciding with "ALF's" Sept. 22 premiere; another ad will be seen in the Oct. 23 issue of Rolling Stone and a billboard will be unveiled at Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, a prime Sunset Strip location, at least a week before "ALF's" premiere.

All will proclaim that "ALF lands at NBC." The billboard will also have a word-balloon that has ALF stating, "Nice planet you've got here. When do we eat?"

"It's very bright logic," said Danny Simon, a vice president at Lorimar-Telepictures, the licenser of ALF products, referring to Coleco's funding of the sitcom promotion. "Without the success of the show, we don't have anything to license."

"The whole toy line is predicated on the success of the characterization," said Alfred Kahn, executive vice president of Hartford-based Coleco. "We're saying that by promoting the show, aren't we also promoting the toy?"

Unlike other toys that might possibly stand on their own, ALF, Kahn said, will appeal to children largely because of his on-screen personality, which is "irreverent" and "very contemporary." (ALF is also "so ugly he's probably cute," Kahn added.)

But the flip side of that logic is that if "ALF" the series doesn't fly, then neither will his stuffed-animal-type Christmas entries, known in the trade as "plush toys."

NBC has ordered 13 episodes of "ALF," enough to take it through the Christmas season. But some aren't so sure of the series' potential with audiences.

Media buyers in New York--the people who decide which shows most major sponsors should advertise in--predict "ALF" will be third in its time period, according to advertising executive Paul Schulman. Kids may also be split equally among "ALF" and its Monday-at-8-p.m. competition, Schulman said--"MacGyver" on ABC and "Kate & Allie" on CBS.

"ALF is an adorable alien puppet dog that has the misfortune of landing on the roof of a very boring family," said Schulman, who successfully predicted the success of "Miami Vice" and "Golden Girls" before they ever aired. ALF alone, he believes, cannot carry the show.

NBC, meanwhile, aside from disagreeing with the media buyers' assessment, believes that the series and the Coleco toy can build on each other.

"If 'ALF' is a marginal performer and then ALF becomes the hottest toy, then people will say, 'What's this (series) about?' " and presumably tune in, said John Miller, NBC vice president for advertising and promotion.

Miller likened a potential ALF scenario to one that worked for "Miami Vice": The show did well enough to attract attention to the pastel colors and hip clothes, which in turn drew more viewers to the show, who in turn bought more "Miami Vice" T-shirts, which helped promote the show--and so on.

The Coleco media campaign also will give "ALF" a push right from the outset that NBC would otherwise not be able to provide. "There is a limit to the total dollars available to advertise our new shows," said Miller, whose department did the creative work on the magazine ads and billboard that Coleco bought.

Kahn noted that there is a big potential payoff to the Coleco gamble of marketing and promoting an unproven character. If the series is a hit, Coleco will have "a preemptive position" in the toy market. "How many other companies can compete with you?" Kahn asked rhetorically. "It's not a doll, it's not an action toy. It's a characterization."

Simon said that, unlike the media buyers, manufacturers are clamoring for rights to ALF. In fact, one of the biggest decisions facing ALF's merchandisers right now is how not to overexpose the character.

ALF has already turned down a request to appear at this year's Emmy awards, which take place the evening before the series' premiere.

"I don't believe in oversaturating until the audience wants it," said executive producer Bernie Brillstein, who co-owns the "ALF" series along with its co-creators, executive producer Tom Patchett ("The Bob Newhart Show") and producer Paul Fusco.

But ALF's managers are ready to make him an omnipresent figure. "ALF does interviews," said Rachel McCallister, a spokeswoman for Brillstein. Indeed, ALF's Hollywood acumen and ad-lib skills have already been put to the test: He was interviewed last week for an upcoming segment of "Entertainment This Week."

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