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Advertising Takes to the Air : Southland Firms Are Pumping Up Giant Inflatables and Claiming a Big Chunk of the Industry's Revenues

January 04, 1988|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

When a Kansas City radio station changed its format last year, it hired a marketing ace for advice. His suggestion: Do something big. The station, KCFX--nicknamed K-FOX--went out and did something big all right. It bought a three-story inflatable fox.

Morning commuters, however, weren't warned about the 30-foot-tall fox. And when the radio station hoisted the air-filled behemoth next to one of downtown Kansas City's busiest freeway exits, one ogling driver crashed his car through a guard rail. The result: a Kansas City highway traffic jam worthy of the Hollywood Freeway.

"It was unbelievable," said Lorri Stanislav, promotion director at KCFX. "Competing radio stations were all reporting that a giant inflatable fox was causing the traffic mess. You might call that negative publicity, but I say publicity is publicity." The next day, a disc jockey christened the $15,000 creature Foxzilla.

But Foxzilla is not alone. In fact, he is in good company with a 30-foot Ronald McDonald, a 20-foot Spuds MacKenzie and a 20-foot Noid from Domino's Pizza. A 15-foot inflatable Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket recently lured patrons to the opening of a fast-food franchise in China. And a pair of 30-foot inflatable Nike tennis shoes hung from the side of the Boston Marathon's headquarters hotel two years ago.

If you haven't seen an inflatable ad yet, you will. These promotional oddities--which can cost from $1,500 to $150,000 each--are made by a growing number of companies that specialize in manufacturing the so-called cold-air inflatable ads. Unlike helium balloons or hot air balloons, these inflatables use cold air that is constantly circulated by a huge fans at the base. Most manufacturers offer deals that include setting up and taking down the inflatables.

The industry, which is less than 15 years old, has spawned more than 30 competitors. And more of the Godzilla-sized publicity gimmicks are made in companies in Southern California.

Full-Blown Competition

In fact, three of the nation's biggest inflatable ad makers are headquartered in the San Diego area. The oldest is Robert Keith & Co. But it is seeing increased competition from Bigger Than Life Inc. of El Cajon and San Diego-based Softsign. Together, the three companies post combined yearly sales of about $8 million, according to industry estimates. That's a pretty sizable chunk of the market, inflatable ad makers say, because they estimate that worldwide annual sales of the entire business total less than $20 million.

That growth did not come easy. And the competition, particularly in the San Diego area, is fierce. In fact, lawsuits have frantically flown between San Diego's inflatable ad makers, and one, Robert Keith & Co., has been operating for several years under protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws.

All of the inflatable ad makers face the same challenge: convincing advertisers that inflatables are worth the time--and money. So far, the inflatable ad makers have been pretty successful. Why are these air-filled advertisements catching on? Inflatable ad makers say advertisers have so much difficulty getting noticed on television or radio that they often turn to inflatable advertising out of desperation. "Our industry is growing because of the frustrations of advertisers in general," said Michael Handler, president of Pie in the Sky, an inflatable maker headquartered in Redwood City. In fact, an estimated 30% of the nation's 500 largest companies have used some sort of inflatable advertising, according to industry estimates.

One of the most satisfied corporate users is Nike. In 1986, in fact, a pair of 30-foot inflatables that Nike used for corporate promotions was pictured on the front of the Beaverton, Ore., company's annual report. "It's a magnificent form of advertising," said Kevin Brown, Nike's director of corporate communications. "The only problem is changing the models every few years to fit our new shoe lines."

Others, however, have reservations about inflatables. "If there's a client with a new product launch, it can be a lot of fun," said Lisa Courtney, vice president and media supervisor at the Los Angeles office of the ad firm Wells, Rich, Greene Inc. "But most clients like to see results, and I don't think you can measure how many people run out to buy Budweiser after they see a Spuds MacKenzie inflatable flying around."

Indeed, inflatables can be great promotional tools for advertisers. They are often used best in locally oriented ad campaigns, said James Spero, senior vice president and media director at the Los Angeles office of the ad firm Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt. "But if you try to do it for a regional or national advertiser, the expense can blow you away."

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