Putting the Horror Back in Halloween
MADISON Avenue is dreaming of a white-knuckle Halloween, just like the ones we used to know.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many advertising campaigns for Halloween were significantly toned down. Five years on, the horror quotient is being dialed back up to typical levels, replete with all manner of macabre things that go bump in the night.
For instance, a campaign for Halloween Horror Nights at the Universal Orlando theme park features gruesome characters tormenting a man trapped in a glass coffin. The Fifth Avenue windows of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Midtown Manhattan present a gothic fantasyland filled with spider webs, animal skulls and gargoyles.
The ABC Family cable network is promoting themed programming under the banner of “13 Nights of Halloween,” with ads depicting a knife-wielding woman, a corpse bride and a tombstone. Sirius Satellite Radio will devote an entire channel (116) on Tuesday to what it calls “the sounds and scares of Halloween.” And a candy ad poses the decapitated head of the legendary Headless Horseman beside a bowl filled with Pumpkin Patch Mix M&Ms.
“The vampires and witches have resurfaced,” said J. Walker Smith, president at Yankelovich Partners, the market research company. “People are being more aggressive this year about everything they’re doing associated with the holiday.”
One reason for the change, Mr. Smith said, is the passage of time since 9/11. He also cited the growing eagerness of adults to celebrate Halloween as evidenced by data from the National Retail Federation showing sharp increases in spending on candy, costumes and decorations.
The return of blood and gore in Halloween pitches may be puzzling, given world events of the last five years, which seem spooky enough without ghoulish ads. But it makes sense to Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail in New York, a consulting company.
“How do you scare people who are immune to being scared?” Ms. Corlett asked rhetorically.
The reversion also reflects how violent imagery still “permeates the culture,” she said, citing influences like video games. “You don’t see Snow White or Cinderella unless they’re being blown up.”
•Marketers give several reasons for embracing the ghastly.
“Our Halloween Horror Nights are about the surreal, not the real,” said Kurt Kostur, senior vice president at Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, Fla., part of the NBC Universal division of General Electric.
“We focus on irrational fears, fears in our minds, of the dark, bugs, clowns, confined spaces,” Mr. Kostur said, but always in the context of the safe environment of the theme park.
“That allows people to enjoy being scared,” he added, “and allows us the liberty to push the envelope on the scare factor in the way people want.” The Universal Orlando campaign was created by an agency in Los Angeles named David and Goliath.
At Bergdorf Goodman, owned by the Neiman Marcus Group, the windows reflect the growing cultural influence of “a goth spirit, an outsider sensibility that is becoming more mainstream,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president for store presentation. “It’s more about the beautiful side of the darker world,” she added, “not gory or cheap-trick thrills.” The windows were designed by Douglas Little in collaboration with House & Garden magazine, part of Condé Nast Publications. They will be on display through next Friday.
At ABC Family, owned by the Walt Disney Company, “Halloween is a time to be scared,” said Paul Lee, president at the network in Burbank, Calif. The goal is to be “pretty scary, but not sick scary,” he said. “This is PG-13, not R-rated. We’re always very careful to put advisories out.”
Striking a balance between fright and fun is also the goal of another network, the Fox Broadcasting unit of the News Corporation, in creating a campaign for the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode of “The Simpsons,” which this year is scheduled for Nov. 5.
For the first time, Fox is encouraging viewers to produce their own commercials to promote the episode, as part of a popular marketing trend known as consumer-generated content. In the slyly named Slice, Dice and Win Contest, viewers can win prizes for spots they create with editing tools on a Web site (thesimpsons.com/treehouse), which gives them the option to make the ads as wild — or mild — as they wish.
“They can do whatever they want with the tone of their spots,” said Chris Carlisle, executive vice president for marketing and promotion at Fox in Los Angeles. Already, 4,000 entries have been received in the contest, he added, which ends Monday; the winning spot will be shown on Fox.
Some marketers are opting for offbeat campaigns more in the vein of Charles Addams or Rod Serling than “Friday the 13th” or “Saw.” For example, the maker of M&Ms, the Masterfoods division of Mars, is running an oddball campaign for Snickers candy. The ads show a woman at her front door facing three trick-or-treating children who are miniature mirror images of her.
“The knee-jerk idea would be the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ version of Halloween, but we wanted to have fun with a new spin,” said Scott Vitrone, a group creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day in New York, part of the Omnicom Group. He worked on the campaign with another group creative director at the agency, Ian Reichenthal.
As soon as Halloween is over, Madison Avenue will turn its full attention to another, even more important shopping season: Christmas.
In recent years, retailers and other advertisers have committed what Mr. Smith at Yankelovich described as “season treason” — moving up the starting date for holiday campaigns from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after Halloween.
Now that’s scary.