Sizzler’s Star Wars advertisement draws fire from Lucasfilm Ltd

Sizzler’s Star Wars advertisement draws fire from Lucasfilm Ltd

Gregg Cebrzynski

CULVER CITY. CALIF. — Sizzler International Inc.’s TV spots promoting a new line of “Sizzling Platters” parody the coming “Star Wars” prequel and are drawing rave reviews from consumers.

But attorneys for director George Lucas and his movie company. Lucasfilm Ltd., didn’t consider the unauthorized and unlicensed campaign a four-star production when they first saw it.

“It’s a parody. We always like to push the envelope a little bit with the advertising, so we heard from Lucasfilm.” said Keith Frohreich. Sizzler’s vice president of marketing. “Like most companies, they have attorneys hanging around looking for things like this.”

A 30-second spot and two 15second ads use video and audio effects and space-movie scenarios to promote the new platters. In one spot a character wonders how to eat the meal. The answer is provided with the line. “Use the fork. Duke.” a voice-over spoken in the style of a surfer dude and a not-so-veiled reference to Obi-Wan Kenobi, saying. “Use the force. Luke.” Frohreich said Lucasfilm attorneys sent Culver City-based Sizzler a letter about the spots, which air on local TV in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. He read the letter but wasn’t exactly sure what the attorneys’ objections were.

“You have to judge how serious they are and what their authority would be,” Frohreich said. “And if they could find a friendly judge who would respond to their complaint. Could they get it off the air?”

Another factor was how much it would cost Sizzler, which operates or licenses 346 Sizzler restaurants worldwide, to defend its right to advertise Sizzling Grilled Strip Skewer and Sizzling Herb Chicken using the time-honored tradition of parody.

“If it’s a decent parody, they can’t claim we were harming them,” Frohreich said. “We’re publicizing that this [movie] is coming out.”

Nonetheless, Sizzler and its agency, Evans, Hardy & Young of Santa Barbara, Calif., tweaked the spots, changing the color of the uniforms worn by the two main characters and altering a deep-sounding voice-over.

Lucasfilm has been zealously policing possible infringements to the marketing and merchandising rights surrounding “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” set to open May 19. The company has leaked only the information it wants the public to know before the film debuts. Even Tricon Global Restaurants — parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut — won’t talk about advertising to support its tie-in to the movie. The Tricon chains are the only restaurants with rights to offer movie-related premiums.

But the hype surrounding the movie fit in perfectly with Sizzler’s move to revamp its advertising approach, which grew out of a decision in 1997 to improve its menu and marketing after emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Earlier in this decade Sizzler ads were considered predictable, usually promoting steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp.

“We have been moving through menu segments and upgrading the menu, and in doing that, we strategically decided that what we would do with advertising is catch everybody off-guard in what they expected a Sizzler spot to be,” Frohreich said.

A movie parody was a natural for the platter promotion, said agency president Jim Evans.

“Sizzling Platters are a big event for Sizzler, and movies are a big event,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate something out of the ordinary and that it’s worth a special visit to Sizzler.”

In terms of brand personality, “We want to communicate that things are changing at Sizzler,” Evans said.

The campaign is the latest in “topical” ads to support new products, one of which was last year’s campaign spoofing the movie “Godzilla” for a crab-claw promotion. That also drew complaints from studio attorneys.

“We had a little fun with a giant crab claw coming through a window and attacking a woman,” Frohreich said.

The spot used old movie footage, even something from the 1920s that showed a giant reptile-like creature but wasn’t actually taken from an early “Godzilla” film. The ad also parodied the “Size matters” slogan of last year’s film.

“We told [the attorneys] that they didn’t own that slogan and reminded them that the footage wasn’t Godzilla,” Frohreich said.

Sizzler also ran a TV spot last year that parodied the wildly popular movie “Armageddon.”

“It’s a device to get attention and to be entertaining, and the [promotional] message is integrated in it,” he said.

Consumers have given thumbsup to the “Star Wars” spoof, based on sales of the new platters. Sizzler expected the promotion to generate a 5-percent-to-6-percent sales increase, “and we’re beating that,” Frohreich said.

Sizzler’s rebound since its Chapter 11 reorganization is apparent in a same-store sales increase of 6.5 percent in the third quarter ended Feb. 7, compared with a 0.3-percent gain in the year-earlier period. In a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission the company said “positive results of the last six quarters reverse 27 consecutive quarters of decreases in comparable restaurant sales.”

For the 40 weeks ended Feb. 7, Sizzler posted a net profit of $4.9 million vs. $3.0 million in the same period a year earlier, despite a decline in revenues to $171.7 million during the most recent 40 weeks, from $186.2 million a year ago.

Sizzler and its ad agency now are working on ideas for the chain’s annual combo-meal promotion. Ads for that campaign have not been determined, but Evans said he’d consider doing another parody.

Separately, the company last month announced the appointment of Charles L. Boppell to its board of directors. Boppell joined Sizzler in March as its new president and chief executive officer. He formerly was chief executive of Hudson’s Grill of America Inc. and Godfather’s Pizza and in the early 1980s was president of Taco Bell.

Sizzler last month also named Kimberly Forster and Diane Hardesty to its senior executive team. Forster fills the new post of vice president of strategic planning. She formerly was director of financial analysis at Times Mirror Co. Hardesty was named vice president of human resources and administration, a position similar to one she held for four years at La Salsa Holding Co.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Lebhar-Friedman, Inc.

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