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Fast-Food Promotional Wars Heading Into a Furious Summer

Teletubbies pay off at Burger King, but 'Star Wars' and 'Tarzan' hold big promise at rival chains.


"Star Wars" may be the king of the box office, but when it comes to summer fast-food promotions, the competition is proving to be much stronger.

Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC trotted out a series of characters from the George Lucas-directed film earlier this month, but that promotion has run up against stiff competition from Burger King's "Teletubbies" promotion, based on the popular PBS television show.

Burger King officials said the promotion has been such a runaway success that many restaurants have run out of the clip-on finger puppets, while others are rationing them.

So far, no shortages of "Star Wars" toys have been reported, despite the amusing television spots, which feature KFC's white-haired Colonel, Taco Bell's talking Chihuahua, and a new female character from Pizza Hut fighting off bad guys, that are blanketing the airwaves.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 29, 1999 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Muppets movie--The Columbia Pictures film "Muppets From Space" will be released July 14. The title and release date were reported incorrectly in a story Friday.

The commercials mark the first of a slew of summer movie promotions from the nation's fast-food chains. These big-bucks collaborations between movie studios and fast-food chains have become an annual rite of summer over the last 10 years.

The cross-promotions not only offer free publicity to the films during an exceptionally competitive period at the box office, but they also can boost sales for the restaurants too.

"It's pretty much a win-win for the studio," said Paul Dergarabedian president and head researcher of Exhibitor Relations Co., a Los Angeles box-office tracking firm.

"They are paid by the chain to have the rights to use the name of the movie on their products."

The fast-food promotions typically last as long as a month and begin just before the movie opens. The tie-ins, particularly those aimed at children, have become an increasingly important competitive tool for the nation's big fast-food chains.

So much so that in 1996, McDonald's Corp. signed a 10-year, multi-million-dollar deal with Walt Disney Co. to be the exclusive fast-food promoter of the entertainment giant's annual animated summer flick.

This year, that means "Tarzan," which opens in theaters June 18. For McDonald's, the Tarzan promotion begins the same day as the movie's release and includes Happy Meal toys and soda straws that replicate the famous Tarzan yell when you slurp through them.

McDonald's is doubling-down with Disney this summer. In July, the hamburger chain will promote "Inspector Gadget" with a Happy Meal program that McDonald's marketing Vice President R.J. Milano said "is unlike anything that has been done in the industry and unlike anything we've ever done as well."

The promotion, which begins a week before the movie's July 23 release, no doubt will send some parents to a McDonald's at least eight times this summer. The Happy Meal prizes are a series of eight interactive toys that connect to form a 15-inch-tall "Gadget Man."

Following its Teletubbies promotion, Burger King is hitching its wagon to Warner Bros. Studios' "Wild, Wild West," which stars Will Smith and opens June 30.

In a sign of how competitive the summer fast-food sweepstakes has become, Burger King officials decline to release any details about the upcoming promotion.

Burger King ruled in past summers thanks to the Disney hits "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas," before being aced out by the McDonald's deal.

Meantime, hamburger chain Wendy's International has high hopes for Columbia Pictures' "Muppets in Space," which opens July 30. Wendy's Muppets promotion begins July 26.

"The Muppets have been and always will be a time-honored family tradition and this partnership is the perfect tie-in for families," said Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch.

But it's Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC--all units of Tricon Global Restaurants--that are expected to make up the team to beat this summer.

"I think [the "Star Wars" promotion] certainly has the potential for the three chains to build traffic quickly," said Robert L. Sandelman, president of a Brea-based market research company that specializes in the restaurant industry.

"This is going to be huge because of the positive history that surrounds 'Star Wars' and the fact that there has been so much hype over the new film," he said.

Tricon officials would not say how much they paid for the "Star Wars" deal, but they make it clear that they consider it invaluable publicity.

"Our goal is to extend the experience of the movie into our restaurants," said Lauren Heller, vice president of media, entertainment and licensing at the Taco Bell unit. "If they keep coming back, then we know we've succeeded."

The "Star Wars" tie-in marks the first time that three different fast-food chains have shared promotion of a single movie. The three chains together make Tricon the nation's second-largest restaurant company behind McDonald's.

If the promotion is a hit, it won't be the first time Taco Bell has profited handsomely from that particular movie franchise.

Following the first series of "Star Wars" promotions with Taco Bell in 1997, then-parent PepsiCo Inc. saw a 4% increase in sales at stores open at least a year.

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