Brook and Charlie arguably are as cute as Mickey Mouse, and when the California sea otters are frolicking in their tank at the Aquarium of the Pacific, they're athletic enough to give Shamu a run for the money.
But while Disneyland and Sea World readily enlist their lovable mouse and killer whale to keep turnstiles spinning, the Long Beach aquarium is sticking with an advertising policy that prohibits marketers from turning its animals into advertising icons.
"We want our advertising to showcase our animals because they are beautiful, entertaining and enticing," said Michele Nachum, the aquarium's director of public relations. "But we won't ever anthropomorphize our animals. You'll never see them talking in an ad or anything like that."
Nonprofit zoos and aquariums say self-imposed marketing rules are necessary to protect the integrity of institutions whose first goal is education and scientific research. And as they go up against some of the world's savviest marketers, nonprofits such as the Long Beach aquarium face a funding crunch. The year-old facility will spend $1 million this year on marketing, but that's a drop in the bucket compared with such deep-pocketed rivals as Universal Studios Inc., which will spend $60 million to promote Islands of Adventure, its new attraction in Orlando, Fla.
So, as government funding dries up and competition for consumers' attention escalates, nonprofit institutions are turning to marketing tactics long used by for-profit competitors.
Increasingly, they are relying on advertising jingles and humor to catch consumers' eyes and ears. "They're more likely to tell about a zoo's virtues in a clever way," said Bob Ramin, director of marketing and development for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. in Silver Spring, Md. "And that, after all, is what advertising is all about. Look at the Denver Zoo's wonderful tag line--'We're serious fun.' That says it all."
Facilities that once viewed advertising with disdain now recognize that "we have to position ourselves as something that's fun, something that can compete with the Knott's and Disneys of the world," said Laurie Whelan-Martinez, the Long Beach aquarium's marketing director.
"To be successful, we have to position ourselves as an attraction, not just as a museum," she says.
Farida Fotouhi, co-founder of a Culver City agency that has produced advertising for the aquarium, says nonprofit attractions can produce catchy advertising without alienating purists.
"The aquarium's charter is to raise awareness of the Pacific Ocean's ecosystem, so they have a very serious intent," Fotouhi said. "But we know that we have to present the aquarium as an entertaining, fun environment by using ads that are interesting, educational and a little bit irreverent."
Levity is off the blacklist. One aquarium ad crafted by Fotouhi Alonso Associates Advertising shows a blank page along with the question "Have you seen our camouflage fish yet?" Another ad that shows the guts of a mechanical shark quips that visitors can get inside a shark without the hassle of being eaten.
The Santa Ana Zoo's first commercial, which will air this month on cable TV, features an actor disguised as a giant squirrel that is rejected when it tries to make its way into the zoo. The commercial plays on the zoo's slogan "Real Wild. Real Close."
The ad, done on a pro bono basis by Bozell Worldwide's Costa Mesa office, marks a distinct change in direction for the small zoo. "We're really at the lower end of the advertising scale--as in no advertising budget whatsoever," said Leslie Perovich, director of the nonprofit Friends of the Santa Ana Zoo. "Bozell offered us six creative ideas, and we picked what's undeniably the strangest.
"It's a very unique commercial," Perovich added. "But we're located between two big institutions in L.A. and San Diego, so there's way too much going on to stick with something really conservative."
Marketers at nonprofit institutions say they guard against breaking self-imposed rules governing how their animals can be incorporated into promos.
Brook and Charlie, for example, star in the aquarium's Sea Otter Summer campaign, but the names that curators use to identify the mammals don't appear in advertising copy. And while mascots are de rigueur at most family attractions, the aquarium campaign features a nameless, biologically correct, costumed sea otter who explains the mammal's plight.
Guidelines on how animals can be used in marketing can put institutions at odds with what consumers have come to expect in an era when media-savvy operators such as the Discovery Channel fill living rooms with an accessible blend of education and entertainment. For example, the Long Beach aquarium has bypassed free publicity by rejecting requests from Hollywood production companies whose movie scripts don't pass muster with the institution's scientific staff.
"Scientists rightfully want to remain in an ivory tower," Nachum said. "But on the other hand, we need to draw people to our doors. We're competing with lots of other attractions. The secret is finding a way to position yourself as a unique, exciting, entertaining and educational institution."
Marketers say humor in advertising is essential given the wealth of sophisticated advertising done by Southern California's for-profit attractions.
"We've written the copy in our advertising to convey the message that you'll learn something," Whelan-Martinez said. "We position this as being a fun place, particularly during the summer, because if we don't, it's hard to get people interested."