July 22nd, 2008

Some Find Corporate Sponsorship of Walk of Fame Hard to Swallow

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

Absolut Vodka pays hundreds of thousands for a plaque on Hollywood Boulevard. It's not quite the same as getting a coveted star, but their public relations department doesn't seem to care.

Why is a Scandinavian vodka being enshrined on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

It’s not a tasteless homage to stars who drink too much. It’s just the latest corporate attempt to buy some good buzz.

Today, Absolut Vodka becomes a “Friend” of the walk, shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a star-like plaque embedded in Hollywood Boulevard.

For some, the partnership is further proof that no attraction or event in the U.S. is impervious to the phenomenon of corporate sponsorship. After all, the National Park Service has corporate sponsors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has corporate sponsors. Paul McCartney’s concert tour had sponsors. (Who said money can’t buy you love?)

About $16.8 billion will be spent on corporate sponsorship in the U.S. this year, up 50% from 2004, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report.

“I think [former honorary mayor of Hollywood] Johnny Grant would roll over in his grave to hear that a commercial entity was doing something to play with the concept of being immortalized,” said Eli Portnoy, a Los Angeles brand strategist.

But the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce needs cash for a $4.1-million walk refurbishment, and in the marketing world, it’s not enough to plop down a sponsor’s name on a brochure anymore. Companies are demanding more return on their investment, which means that sponsorship comes with strings attached, said Jim Andrews, editorial director of the sponsorship report.

“At this time, with the economy and all, you need the right type of program in order to recruit major corporations,” said Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber. “We have taken great pains in planning to make sure it doesn’t compromise the identity of the walk.”

It’s unclear just how different the Absolut plaque, near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, will be from nearby stars for Antonio Banderas, Matthew Broderick and Jackie Chan.

Chamber officials wouldn’t provide a sneak preview, but Gubler described the plaque as a 3-foot square set in terrazzo and brass featuring an Absolut bottle, text citing Absolut as a “Friend of the Walk of Fame,” and the icons such as a film projector and microphone that appear on other stars.

Last month, Gubler said, the chamber rejected a design that looked too much like the stars for celebrities. He said the plaque cannot be confused with a star because it is on private property and is “set back a distance from the Walk of Fame.”

Absolut, however, is singing a different tune, referring to the plaque as an “honorary star” in a press release. Public relations manager Sarah Bessette said it will be “right there in front of the Kodak Theatre, near the others.”

Absolut is gearing up a flashy marketing campaign to introduce its new vodka, Absolut LA, which it describes as a “progressive mix of new age flavors” such as blueberry, acai and pomegranate. “Flavored vodka as a concept has become a little bit stale,” said Tim Murphy, Absolut’s vice president of marketing.

The Swedish company stumbled into the limelight in April when another ad from its “In an Absolut World” campaign showed the Mexican border extending northward to roughly where it was before the Mexican-American War.

The newest campaign might help Absolut get ahead of the many vodka companies scrambling for attention as they roll out new flavors of vodka, said Brian Quinton, editor-at-large for Promo Magazine.

Until, that is, the chamber convinces other sponsors to plop down some cash for their very own slice of sidewalk.

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