The fictional kingdom in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" will be re-created for cell phone users sometime this summer as part of a first-of-its-kind marketing campaign targeting wireless devices in the United States, filmmaker New Line Cinema said Wednesday.
This is not unsolicited spam. Cell phone users first register on a Web site, creating a Tolkien-like character for themselves. Then by dialing in a special number on their phones, they can interact with other characters, receive news updates and, in the future, actually do battle in virtual games, according to New Line Cinema.
The same type of "branded content" campaigns on wireless gadgets have become popular in Europe. Companies like Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Nike, liquor maker Finlandia, Intel and Sun Microsystems have all launched advertising campaigns thinly disguised as wireless interactive games, like Pepsi's "Pepsi Foot" fantasy soccer game.
But there's barely a stir in the United States, up until the New Line Cinema announcement. Some analysts say it's because phones have to be capable of sending short messages to each other to participate in these kinds of marketing campaigns. Billions of cell phone callers in Europe trade these 160-character missives every month. The same type of service is just being introduced in the United States.
Another hurdle is the hodgepodge of standards that different carriers use in the United States, making calls between cell phones serviced by different networks either impossible or expensive. That is not the case in Europe, where carriers have all but settled on one standard, known as GSM.
"In theory, (the campaign) is great," Shosteck Group analyst Jane Zweig said. "But there are the same issues. All of these companies that may have an interesting proposition are still dependant on the devices and the networks."
At the very least, the marketing effort is coming at the right time, said Don Albert, vice chairman of the Wireless Advertising Association.
"This is the year where marketers are, and should be, experimenting and trying to figure out the best uses of this new medium," he said.
But so far the advertisers have stayed away, Albert said. The total amount of wireless advertising is so low that one trade group said zero dollars have been spent so far in 2001.
"It's the chicken and the egg," Albert said. "Companies won't sink money into it until they know it works, but won't know it works until they do a campaign."
Jan Wellmann, CEO of Riot Entertainment, which has won the rights from New Line Cinema to create the wireless marketing strategy, isn't shying away from the fray, however.
"In 1997, some of the operators in Europe made a case study on who is going to use text messaging. Response was no one," Wellmann said. "It took about two years, when people realized how simple, fast and convenient it is, to spread like wildfire. I think the same will happen in the U.S."