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Product Placement the Marvel Way (Part 1) - Interview with Joe Maimone

Outhouse Marketing Expert Dooz discusses marketing and comics with former Marvel Advertising Director Joe Maimone.



New X-Men, No. 20, featuring Nike 6.0 brand logo; copyright 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc.

Note: Originally posted @ The Short Shift

In 2006, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about comics publishers implementing product placement; the article kicked up a bit of a storm on comics blogs and message boards about the viability and appropriateness of embedded marketing in comic books. While DC Comics seems to have dropped the program described in the article (DC's Diego Zhao and his Pontiac Solstice GXP haven't made an appearance since the end of Rush City's six-issue run in 2007), Marvel Comics has forged ahead with embedded brand messages.

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to one of the architects of Marvel Comics' placement program, former Marvel Advertising Director Joe Maimone. What followed was a lengthy conversation about not only product placement, but comics as a viable marketing channel. Here's Part 1 of the interview, with Parts 2 & 3 following later this week.

Kris Mehaffey: Your name came to the forefront first in a Wall Street Journal article written by Brian Steinberg about Marvel developing this product placement deal. First, how did you come to work at Marvel Comics as their Advertising Director?

Joe Maimone: I can’t remember the exact dates, but I joined Marvel roughly, I would say, about seven years ago. Before there, I worked for the music magazine Billboard Magazine, you know, the one-hundred-twenty-eight-year-old trade publication that everybody knows for their charts. I worked there for several years, and the Marvel opportunity just fell in my lap through an employment agency/headhunters/things like that. So because it was in the entertainment field, which I wanted to remain in, I got the job with them as Advertising Director.

Kris: What was your part in developing Marvel Comics’ product placement program?

Joe: Marvel, when I got there, was not the company that it is today. You know, now they’re making their own movies; they’re doing very, very well. The comic book circulation originally wasn’t that great. Marvel Comics now is the fourth largest men’s magazine in America. Before I got there, they barely had any ads in the comic books. For the last two or three years I was there, we maxed out every month. In the world of comic books, every comic book has a certain amount of pages and a certain amount of ads to sell. It’s not like another magazine, where you could just keep adding pages and make advertising revenue. Comic books are always, if I remember correctly, thirty-two pages, no matter what. Whether there are ads in them or not, they’re always the same amount. So when I was there, we really started getting at what they call non-endemic advertising. Back in the day, you would get advertisers who were endemic to comic books.



Like, for instance, for a sports magazine, an endemic advertiser would be an entity like major league baseball. In Billboard, an endemic advertiser was Sony Records. Marvel, when I first came on board had nothing but endemic advertisers. Companies that were Marvel licensees; people who made, like Spider-Man sneakers, things like that. They never had ads that catered to their demographic audience, basically, which was guys from 18 to 34.

So when I got there, we started working on capturing non-endemic ads. And we were able to do so by offering what is called value-added programs. In the world of advertising, in an RFP – an RFP is a Request for Proposal – an advertiser will say, “We’re interested in advertising in you. What is the price for two pages, four pages, six pages, or even eight pages for the next twelve months?” So that’s pretty easy, you just give them the rate card. But in order to earn the business, you have to have more than just a good price. You need to offer what is called value-added opportunities. So, back in the day, the only value-added opportunity Marvel had was advertising on their website. So any major advertiser would get the number of pages they wanted and they might get a month free on marvel.com. That was their “value added.” But, you know, everybody was doing it, so it really wasn’t a competitive advantage. So I, because I never had read a comic book in my life – I was in advertising, but I never read a comic book, never was a fan, never grew up reading, never, you know, other than Spider-Man movies, was into a Marvel brand. I certainly knew of it because of the cachet, everyone knows it, but I really didn’t know how comic books read and what they were all about. So I kind of came into it with a fresh mind.

Most comic book geeks, if you will, people who have been reading them for ten, twenty, thirty years, would be mortified at the thought of product placement in comic books. It was never thought of before, but I think because I came from outside the industry and was looking at these comics where Spider-Man flew through Times Square on paper. You know, they would draw the exact ads that were in Times Square the day that artist drew that scene. So I was like, well, it’s great that we have these ads that are really there, but, you know, why can’t we put whatever we want on those ads? And since they retained the look of ads – and basically, the word we used was organic – why can’t we just put whatever we want there as long as they are organic and flowed with the story and didn’t really take away from the story? And I was able to talk the Editorial people into doing it. In any magazine, there’s a huge butting of the heads between Editorial and Advertising. It’s just there – it’s everywhere. I don’t care – any magazine from Oprah to Cosmo to Sports Illustrated to Marvel – Editorial and Ad Sales butt heads. But I was able to convince them to try it. Like I said, there are a ton of scenes -- whether it’s Spider-Man flying through Times Square or just a bunch of kids on a corner wearing T-shirts. Why can’t there be something on the T-shirt? Why can’t we make it a concert T-shirt? Put a Van Halen logo on there or something like that? Or a logo, you know – I’m trying to think of one of the first ones we did – ah, I forget the name of the band. But we actually did as a product placement a record company. Remember, Marvel puts out, if I remember correctly, forty to sixty comic books a month, so there are plenty of opportunities throughout the comics where there are some people wearing T-shirts that could have a logo on it.

Kris: Advertising real estate, just sitting there-

Joe: Right, exactly. So, as long as it was organic and it didn’t really seem obtrusive to the reader, they agreed for me to do it. It was a big ordeal. Every time I cut a product placement deal, I would have to sit down with the editors, and we together would figure out where to put these placements. The first one we ever did was with Nike. Nike was coming out with a new skateboarding shoe, the Nike 6.0. And that was the first deal we ever cut where it was actually paid for. In the past we would do something value-added as a favor to one of our movie studio partners. We would put something in there. But nobody ever paid for it until Nike did. And that was, oh, I forget the amount of placements, but maybe over twelve months there were like six or eight placements throughout the comic book. We determined what comic book; they could not choose – “We only want to be in Spider-Man” or “We only want to be in Captain America” or “We only to be in Fantastic Four” – we determined where this was done. Remember, it’s got to be organic.

So the first one we ever did was Nike. Not only did kids wear the Nikes, if they could be drawn in as footwear, but when Spider-Man flew through Times Square or when a bus was in the scene, on the side of the bus, where there was an ad, like all ads are, instead of what was really there, we would put Nike 6.0. And it went well. A lot of business, a lot of print business. We got a lot of ad schedules because of this, because, you know, nobody else could offer it. Nobody could offer product placement in a magazine. But because we were a comic book, it allowed us to do this, and the flow was normal without its being obtrusive.

The next one we did was with Dodge, which is when the article came out. We booked a deal with Dodge where, you know – you can imagine all the cars. Marvel Comics – the good thing about Marvel and why Marvel fans in general loved Marvel versus DC comics: Marvel comic-book heroes and comic-books take place in real cities – real times, real people, real places. None of the characters was born on Mars or Krypton or wherever. You get real people, real problems. So the scenery was real-life New York. So when a bus came by, we had that opportunity; in Times Square, we had that opportunity; when a taxi came by with an ad on top of it like they have, we had that opportunity. Nobody else could do it. So with Dodge, you know, we made the cars in that scene the Caliber, which was the car they were promoting the most when we did it with them. Again, these were in the form of value-added items, but, in the scheme of things, when you look at the entire proposal, they were paying for these placements. We also did it for a music company or two with concert T-shirts, with just, you know, kids wearing T-shirts with bands’ names on them, just like in real life. And quite honestly, until the article came out, the readers didn’t even notice because it was so natural, which was great for me, Editorially, because nobody was complaining, except for some of the purists, who would send me hate mail and things like that. But you’re going to have that with any purists in anything.

Now, I’ve been out of there a good two years, so I don’t know if it’s . . .

Kris: They’re actually doing it quite a bit. I mean--

Joe: Are you a big fan?

Kris: I’ve actually always been a fan of comics, and Marvel especially, because of one of the points you brought up – you know, the whole real-world experience.

Joe: And the great thing is – and why the movies do so well – the Marvel characters are real people with real problems, whether it’s girl problems or money problems or whatever problems. You know, the DC characters are from another planet, they’re not human, so they can’t have the problems like normal people like us have. And that’s why they sell a heck of a lot more comic books than their nearest competitor. I mean Marvel’s market share is probably a good 45–50%.


X-Factor No. 24, featuring US Army logo; copyright 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc.

Kris: I think that last year, out of the top ten comics that were sold, the top ten–selling comics of the year, Marvel had eight.

Joe: Yeah, that’s the way it was when I was there even before they had dominated. But, you know, I’m trying to think of the other – oh, Army! The last big one we did was with Army. We had a huge deal that the U.S. Army made with us. A lot of advertising online, and they had probably eight product placements in the year’s time they advertised with us. They had their campaign “Army Strong” and we did a lot with that, whether it was on T-shirts or on banners in the background, you know – the normal advertising opportunities. That was the last big one I did before I left to do what I’m doing now.

Check back Wednesday and Thursday for Parts 2 & 3, when we'll discuss the placement approvals process, the roles of Advertising, Editorial and Creative, and reader reaction.


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