Video Store Chain Uses Humor to Go Up Against the Giants

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VisArt Video, Durham, NC, a small chain of video stores that spices its mainstream selection of titles with an assortment of independent and art films, is betting it can wield direct mail as a weapon in its uphill fight against the large video rental chains.

Rather than downplaying its small stature, VisArt is using the mailings to advertise its local ownership and broad selection. Operating stores in Durham , Carrboro, NC, and Chapel Hill, NC, VisArt's direct mail advertises the company's willingness to carry films that the large chains don't, including foreign films, animated festival films and movies with NC-17 ratings.

Ad agency Howard, Merrell & Partners, Raleigh, NC, which designed the mailings, began an ad campaign for VisArt with newspaper spots last year. The underlying campaign strategy was designed to appeal to local clientele, many of whom are affiliated with major universities in the area. For the mailings, the agency provided VisArt with 5,000 each of two different postcards. The budget for the campaign was less than $10,000.

VisArt's main challenge was a lack of visibility, and the mailings were designed to fix that, said Scott Ballew, art director at Howard, Merrell.

"A lot of people didn't realize they were there. They thought that Blockbuster or Hollywood Videos were their only options," Ballew said. "The postcards were doing several things. By the nature of their headline alone, they were telling people that we have a tremendous amount of selection and we even have selections that you're not going to find at Blockbuster."

Both large postcards display color photographs of antiquated television sets projecting the video store's name. In one card, the headline in the set reads "Sex, Lies, And 61,752 Videotapes." The other card says, "Where 'Herbie The Love Bug' meets 'The Bad Lieutenant.' " Ballew said the mailings mention movies like "Bad Lieutenant," a 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel that critics typically describe as not for the fainthearted, because they aren't available in their original form in some of the larger chains. Blockbuster doesn't carry the original NC-17 version of "Bad Lieutenant" but does offer an R-rated version of the film, a company spokeswoman said.

Though some of the cards are already on the street, the remainder will go out in batches. Except for small-print body copy that gives the cards a wry punch and points out which towns VisArt operates in, Howard, Merrell left the back of the cards mostly blank, giving the video company an open-ended mailing that it can use as it pleases over time.

"Originally, we were going to put an offer on the back, but then we chose to run them blank," Ballew said, "so they can send them out to valued customers on birthdays, [or] they can flood a particular ZIP code if they wanted to drive traffic and create awareness within a very specific area."

Howard, Merrell began its VisArt campaign with print ads in independent area weekly newspapers that cater to the crowd VisArt wanted to target. The agency then began a poster campaign for the company with slogans like, "Even our American films are foreign to most people." Howard, Merrell had to economize with its small budget, taking such steps as using the same shots for the posters and the print ads.

The VisArt chain has grown to six locations from four in the last year.

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