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They Love the Parade for the Publicity It Promises

Pageant: Rose Tournament gives sponsors a cornucopia of media attention.

January 01, 1998|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, the Tournament of Roses. The tradition! The pageantry! The scramble for free publicity!

Before the flower-draped floats hit the streets this morning, a related ritual had been in bloom for weeks: the jostling among firms and charitable groups to gain media notice for their roles in the celebrated annual tournament, complete with a 400-million-strong television audience.

Whether to plug a 14-story Michelin Man balloon or trumpet a Washington State baton twirler, parade-related announcements have been fluttering from faxes like so many decorative petals.

Many are aimed at creating a buzz around a particular float, like the one with giant frogs covered with Brussels sprouts or the one featuring a mammoth dragonfly soaring 50 feet in the air. Some hype the folks--from race car drivers to septuagenarian cyclists--who'll be riding in the parade but are available for interviews beforehand.

Among the announcements in the days leading up to the New Year's Day spectacle was a mortgage company's plan to project the image of a seven-story dinosaur on the side of a building along the Colorado Boulevard parade route ("extremely visual!") and an invitation to see bouquets being made for the Rose Queen and her court ("lots of excitement!").

Corporate public relations hands flew in to tend to the delicate and competitive task of getting national exposure for their firm's floats well before parade day. Even local hospitals and nonprofit groups, from the American Cancer Society to Heal the Bay, snared a slice of the pre-parade hoopla.

Little wonder. With its mom-and-apple-pie image, holiday symbolism and worldwide television audience, the Tournament of Roses is a publicist's fantasy come true.

When it comes to hype, experts say the Rose Parade ranks up there with a handful of mega-events--the Superbowl, the Olympics and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade come to mind. The parade bears the same flavor of Americana as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, offering even small volunteer groups an opportunity to climb on board.

"The whole Rose Bowl has such a positive image as such a positive community event--not just for Pasadena but for California and the nation as a whole," said USC marketing professor Ben M. Enis, who also serves on the board of directors of Countrywide Home Loans, which is entering its own float. "It's useful to be associated with a positive event like this."

No one has to tell that to executives at the Target store chain, which has run a sophisticated publicity operation all week out of a trailer. Publicists assigned to the effort set up telephone lines and hired a satellite truck to transmit daily footage of their cricket, dog and bumble bee float to television stations around the country.

"Long days," said a tired Noelle Hawton, one of two staffers from the Minneapolis publicity firm spearheading the store's efforts. She had to arise in the dead of night to prepare a live satellite interview for stations back East.

But Hawton said all the effort has paid off, with news coverage of Target's float-building appearing as far away as its home city of Minneapolis and in Detroit, near the home of the University of Michigan, which plays Washington State in the Rose Bowl game.

There is a bottom-line consideration in all this, of course--big businesses do not shell out $200,000 or more on a float purely for the pleasure of a parade. But it is difficult to precisely measure the business benefits of having a firm's name attached to a float on New Year's Day.

"We know it's valuable," said Enis. "To put a dollar value on it would challenge even the most creative accountant." Experts add that while there is value in parade-day acclaim, getting noticed before the event can be just as important.

"On New Year's Day, everybody's looking at the same thing," said Kevin McCauley, editor of the monthly O'Dwyer's PR Services Report. The preview events provide an opportunity to stand out from the crowd, he said. That also goes for the nonprofit groups who see the Rose Parade as their chance to make a global splash.

The National Childhood Cancer Foundation was pleased to see local coverage of an event Sunday highlighting the problem.

"It gives us tremendous exposure and reminds people on this happy day that childhood cancer is curable," said Meredith Brucker, foundation spokeswoman.

The competition can be fierce, with so many clamoring so loudly for attention. There is the 11-year-old Texas girl who designed a float. And the baton twirler whose great-grandparents met on a Rose Parade float in 1915. (Her mother issued the press release.)

But for the corporate PR sophisticates, success is measured by how many hundreds of radio stations pick up their pitch. StarKist Tuna shipped out 60-second spots featuring comments by its "spokesfish," Charlie the Tuna, to 200 radio stations.

"That's our goal," said a company spokesman. "Bring as much of this to your attention as possible."

* SPONSORED BY . . . The Tournament of Roses has attracted a growing list of sponsors. D4

* NO. 1 PRIORITY: Michigan goes for its first national title in 50 years when it plays Washington State. C1

* COLOR THEM BLUE: About 300 Wolverine fans found themselves without the tickets promised by a tour operator. B1

Parade map, B2

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