Marketer Vox thinks outside the box

ONE NIGHT last summer, five unmarked white vans, each one retrofitted with a movie projector designed to run on its engine battery, embarked on a guerilla mission through the streets of L.A.

The vans stopped at busy intersections in front of such locales as the Standard Hotel and the Staples Center. A projectionist then threw open the van doors and hit play, splashing a highlight reel of ESPN videogames across the venue’s walls.

The stunt was the brainchild of El Segundo, Calif.-based Vox Entertainment. Vox founder Shawn Sedlacek and his colleagues, many of them former fraternity pledges and SoCal natives who can be found most evenings after work at the El Porto surf break, specialize in high-concept marketing stunts designed to raise the profile of brands like Ford, Nintendo, Motorola and Sony PlayStation above the white noise of everyday advertising.

Vox, and hundreds of upstart marketing firms like it, comprise a sector of the marketing business that’s rapidly growing and almost completely unregulated. Together, they’re rapidly changing the way products get hyped.

These companies spend millions of dollars each year dreaming up ways to extend the business of branding ever deeper into our day-to-day lives and across every unused square inch of public space.

STREET MARKETING has long been seen as a public nuisance, or as a promotional short cut for companies with limited marketing budgets. Just ask anyone who’s ever crossed the street to avoid accepting a flier or product sample from a mascot in a goofy costume.

Last year, PBS’ “Frontline” aired “The Persuaders,” a documentary about advertising. One memorable scene showed a collision in downtown Boston between two street marketing teams: one group toted human-size billboards for the energy drink Fuze; the other wore green Lycra bodysuits and stocking caps with flat-screen TVs strapped to their stomachs to promote Song Airlines. Adding insult to injury, the Song mascots were heckled mercilessly by a group of passing construction workers.

No statistics are available on the size of the street marketing industry, but one thing’s clear: America’s cities have never been inundated with quite so many human billboards, stickering campaigns, chalked sidewalks, “wild posting” on construction sites and free merchandise distributed in subways, bars and nightclubs.

Lately, these efforts have met with some spirited resistance from people who want to preserve some ad-free civic space.

That battle took an unusual detour through the federal courts last month, when New York City Major Michael Bloomberg sought to stop Atari from holding a block party to promote a new videogame, “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.”

To be sure, Bloomberg’s objection wasn’t to the marketing, per se, but to the game, which features graffiti artists striking a blow against “government tyranny and exploitation” by defacing subways.

But a federal judge threw out the city’s case on First Amendment grounds, and the party went ahead as planned, complete with graffiti artists spray-painting mock replicas of New York subways, and timed to promote the game’s release later this fall.

Score one for the street marketing revolution, sticking it to the man in the name of PlayStation 2.

RECOGNIZING their resistance from pedestrians and college students, Vox spends hours thinking up ways to deploy its street teams so they’re not just another corporate eyesore. The company’s goal, Sedlacek said, is to create “a positive, interactive experience between an individual and a product.”

“You want to do a Green Day concert on a barge in the Virgin Islands for Jose Cuervo? We’ll do it,” he said. “You want a plan a nice bridal party? We’re not your best option.”

Sedlacek, who got his start DJing pool parties for Manhattan Beach teenagers when he was 12 years old (he’s now 33), gets giddy when discussing the large-scale logistics of these efforts.

To capitalize on the foam party craze among college students and spring breakers, he said, Vox hired a chemist to create a proprietary hypoallergenic foam product that can fill a basketball court three feet deep in a matter of seconds.

For the release of the first “American Pie” DVD, Vox dispatched 50 people to college campuses to fling gooey chunks of apple pie at each other while distributing fliers directing students to local video outlets.

Last year, Vox hired skiers in red Nestle ski suits, with Nestle jetpacks full of hot cocoa strapped to their backs, to patrol the slopes of Vail, Breckenridge and other resorts, then shot video footage for Nestle’s Web site of snowboarders standing in front of a giant Nestle banner shouting things like “Nestle rocks!”

Vox recently began working with Lions Gate to recruit frats and sororities from 270 colleges to organize date nights at local multiplexes, where Lions Gate movies will be screened for free with free popcorn.

Let’s say “Saw 2” isn’t an ideal date movie. In that case, Sedlacek said, “Screen it at midnight. It doesn’t have to be a date.

“Lion’s Gate has a product, but they don’t have the proper vehicle to get it to students,” he said. “That’s where we come in.”

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