E.T., that beloved movie alien, has returned to Earth – to do a commercial.
Comcast, the owner of the Universal movie studio that distributed the creature’s blockbuster 1982 film, has placed him in a new longform commercial for the company and its broadband, cable and satellite products. In the ad, which debuted during the Thursday broadcast of the annual “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” on Comcast’s NBC, E.T. returns to see his friend Elliott. The character is once again played by Henry Thomas, the same actor who portrayed him decades ago.
“The audience is going to get everything they want out of a sequel without the messy bits that could destroy the beauty of the original and the special place it has in people’s minds and hearts,” said Thomas, in a statement provided by Comcast.
The ad – more than four minutes long in some versions – marks a bold bet by the Philadelphia entertainment giant that it can use its revered intellectual property for commercial purposes without upsetting some fans who might blanch at the notion.
To be sure, a new generation of consumers does not have the same connection to the Steven Spielberg movie as some people who saw it in the early 1980s. Hearing the famous phrase “E.T. phone home” may prompt a current audience to ask why the alien won’t text. And E.T. has never been immune from marketing. After all, the placement of Reese’s Pieces in the original movie helped boost that then-new product to untold heights. But he’s never been explicitly used in this fashion in prior appearances.
The new ad, crafted by Omnicom Group’s Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, shows E.T. back on Earth once more, in a grown Elliott’s front yard. He hangs out with the man’s family, who show him how to surf the web with Comcast’s Xfinity and use an Xfinity remote to call up holiday movies on a big-screen TV. He helps Elliott’s kids fly on their bicycles, a nod to one of the most memorable scenes in the original. A graphic on-screen urges viewers to “Reconnect for the holidays.”
“Our goal is to show how Xfinity and Sky technology connects family, friends and loved ones, which is so important during the holidays,” said Peter Intermaggio, senior vice president for marketing communications at Comcast Cable, in a prepared statement. “The classic friendship between E.T. and Elliott resonates around the world, and their story became a very meaningful way to bring our company’s consumer technology to life.”
Comcast approached Spielberg with the concept, according to a person familiar with the matter, and secured his permission for the effort. The director, this person said, appreciated the theme of connection at holiday time. Spielberg was consulted throughout the process.
The spot will get prominent airing around the globe. Comcast said the ad will run through January 5th in nine different versions for the United States and in different versions that tout the company’s Sky satellite service rather than Xfinity in Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy.
In the U.S., a two-minute commercial will also appear Thanksgiving Day on Fox during its 12:30 p.m. eastern NFL game, on CBS during its 4:30 p.m. eastern NFL game, and again NBC during the 8:20 p.m. NFL game. Comcast’s Syfy cable network will run the entire four-minute short between airings of “E.T.” on Thanksgiving night. Comcast also plans to run it across broadcast network and national cable networks, online, in social media and in cinemas. It can also be seen by Xfinity customers who utter “E.T. Phone Home” into their voice remote.
The producers of “E.T.” were always very careful about how the property was marketed and managed. Director Spielberg pulled the film from release after a year, and did not make it available immediately via videocassette or cable, then re-released it in 1985. Stanley Newman, the executive who headed the consumer products group of Universal’s owner at the time, MCA Corporation, told The Los Angeles Times in 1985 that the company had purposely tried to limit licensing of the movie for merchandise. “Every licensee tried to add more products, everybody wanted a piece of the pie,” he said as the film was being re-released. “The demand was so incredible–we did not license half what we could have.”
In a world when nearly every piece of intellectual property from Sesame Street Muppets to Bob Dylan songs seems ripe for marketing and sales, some people still resist. Bruce Springsteen’s songs have never been used in commercials, for example. But other stalwarts are giving in. Neil Young, who in 1988 famously declared in a song that he “ain’t singing for Pepsi / ain’t singing for Coke,” recently turned up in a web ad for Amazon Music.
The company launches the ad at a competitive time. As consumers migrate to streaming services, cable and satellite distributors have come under new scrutiny.
Comcast said video subscribers declined .9% in the third quarter and .7% for the first nine months of the year. Getting subscribers to keep Comcast broadband service or traditional cable or satellite in the home is of new importance to the company, particularly during a season when streaming-video hubs like Netflix or Amazon Prime are touting new selections like “The Irishman” or a new season of “Jack Ryan.”
Comcast is counting on E.T. to keep viewers focused on Xfinity and Sky, its European satellite unit, rather than those new-tech competitors. Can the alien pull it off? He will have to do a lot more than help kids fly in the night.