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'Ted' marketing campaign balances raunch with heart

June 22, 2012|By Ben Fritz
  • Standees in theaters advertising "Ted" portray a giant teddy bear showing off his movie's R rating.
Standees in theaters advertising "Ted" portray a giant teddy… (Universal Pictures )

Two very different trailers debuted on the same day in April for "Ted,"the new comedy movie starring Mark Wahlberg as a man whose best friend is a talking, cursing, sex-obsessed teddy bear.

One that ran with the sweet R-rated "American Reunion" focused on Wahlberg cutting ties with his plush toy pal for the sake of a new girlfriend. It generated laughs from Ted's bad driving and the way he squeaks "I love you" when he’s hugged.

The other, shown alongside hard R-rated comedies such as "The Dictator," featured less emotion and got its laughs from bong hits, simulated oral sex and a song in which practically every third word is unprintable in a family newspaper.

Universal Pictures' marketing campaign for "Ted," which debuts next Friday, must communicate that it’s a raunchy comedy similar to director Seth MacFarlane’s hit TV series "Family Guy" — while also drawing the broad audience that will learn about the movie from ads on more family-friendly prime-time TV.

The studio's solution is bifurcated materials, like the two trailers, that attempt to send different messages to distinct audiences while trying not to mislead either. One result: double entendres. A billboard with the bear surfing the Internet has the tagline "Ted is coming."

As at most studios, executives at Universal are loath to publicly discuss their marketing campaigns before a movie opens. But outside analysts said the company is engaged in a balancing act.

"The key is to have a concept so outlandish that people understand what your movie is without having to show too much material that is itself outlandish," said Vincent Bruzzese, president of research firm Ipsos Media CT's motion pictures group.

Showing a teddy bear who hangs out with prostitutes named Heavenly and Sauvignon Blanc provides a pretty clear message of what the movie is about without having to discuss what he does with them.

But when marketing materials show a character who would look at home in a G-rated Disney movie, there are other challenges.

"My 8-year-old saw a TV ad and asked me, 'Can I go see that?'" Studio City resident Ingrid Milkes said. "I learned a little about it and had to say 'Nope, that’s not appropriate for you.'"

Even without bringing in the pre-teen crowd, "Ted" is on track to pack theaters on its opening weekend. It’s expected to open to about $40 million, a very strong start for a film that cost about $50 million to produce. And although interest is strongest with men under 25, MacFarlane’s primary demographic, it’s respectable among younger women and older men as well, indicating that Universal has successfully drawn people who don’t tune in every Sunday to "Family Guy."

If audiences embrace it, "Ted" could end up grossing more than $100 million in the U.S. and Canada, putting it well ahead of such recent big-budget disappointments as "Dark Shadows" and Universal's own "Battleship."

The studio is hoping that the romance in "Ted," and its story about letting go of a childhood best friend, will help it replicate the success of such R-rated comedy hits as "Bridesmaids" and "The Hangover" and avoid a failure like that of Adam Sandler’s recent "That's My Boy."

"When you look at the most successful R-rated comedies, there is always an emotional core to them," said "Ted" producer Scott Stuber. "You want a date couple to both come out saying, 'I loved that movie.'"

As a result, Universal has put Wahlberg's character’s relationship with his girlfriend, played by Mila Kunis, and his childhood love for Ted front and center in TV commercials that have run on everything from the NBA playoffs to "So You Think You Can Dance."

The raunchy side of the bear — voiced by MacFarlane, who also co-wrote the screenplay — is only hinted at. While it's clear Ted likes to party, only a few ad spots show that he enjoys drugs, alcohol and the company of prostitutes. None portray Ted actually using four-letter words or illegal narcotics.

Like most modern R-rated comedies, however, "Ted" has a plethora of "not safe for work" promotional content available online. The movie’s Twitter feed, which is produced by writers on MacFarlane’s team, features the titular teddy discussing his state of inebriation and answering fan questions about other stuffed animals with which he might want to be intimate.

People familiar with Universal’s marketing strategy but not authorized to discuss it publicly said the studio is using social media to excite "Family Guy" fans who have been interested in “Ted” since the moment they heard it was MacFarlane's first film. Its Twitter feed boasts more than 180,000 followers, eight times as many as "The Amazing Spider-Man's."

It may be in movie theaters, however, where Universal has best encapsulated the contrast of an adorable title character with a not-so-cute personality. Standees displayed in lobbies across the country show a giant teddy bear, wearing a smug smile, proudly holding up a label with his R rating.

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