Sock Puppet Returns ...As a Direct Marketer?

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The ultimate symbol of dot-com brand marketing foolishness has been resurrected as, of all things, the new mascot for a direct marketing company. What's more, he's hawking car loans to people with bad credit.


The famous Pets.com sock puppet is now the mascot for 1-800-Bar None, Pleasanton, CA.


The puppet is prominently featured on the company's Web site at BarNone.com next to the tagline, "Everyone deserves a second chance." He will begin appearing in commercials for the company this month.


Hakan & Associates, a Kansas City, KS, licensing company, bought the rights to the puppet for $125,000 after Pets.com closed in November 2000.


Hakan and 1-800-Bar None jointly own the rights to the sock puppet under the company name Sock Puppet LLC and are working on getting mascot work in other industries.


Hakan also represents Gidgey, the Chihuahua of Taco Bell fame. It announced in mid-June that it is planning the pooch's comeback as well.


While the sock puppet's resurrection as a direct marketing mascot will be seen as even further vindication by DMers who relished the dot-com implosion, the development also has raised more than a few eyebrows.


"It's totally bizarre," said Larry Kimmel, chairman/CEO of Grey Direct, New York. "They're going to get a heck of a lot of publicity for this thing, but is the sock puppet a credible resource for selling loans? I kind of think not."


What's more, Kimmel said, lots of publicity doesn't necessarily translate into acceptable customer acquisition costs.


"[The 1-800-Bar None/sock puppet deal] speaks to two things: the success of building an advertising icon that lives beyond its original purpose. At the same time, it's a bizarre application of taking one entity and applying it to something it's totally inappropriate for," Kimmel said.


Jim Crouse, chief executive of 1-800-Bar None, did not return a call for comment in time for deadline. However, he reportedly told the Associated Press that he hopes the sock puppet will send the company's message -- that everyone deserves a second chance -- "cleverly and with a touch of humor."


There is little doubt of that. But it will send other messages as well and may backfire on 1-800-Bar None.


"I'm not sure who their audience is," said David Sable, president/CEO, Wunderman, New York. "If it's former dot-commers who are out of jobs, I'm not sure they're going to find it particularly funny or motivating. And if it's people of various ethnic groups, I'm not sure they're going to know what it is."


Sable said the deal strikes him as a "vanity play." He also compared the sock puppet pitching car loans to Suzanne Somers hawking Thigh Masters.


Others agree.


"Next thing you know, he'll be giving out $1 million checks for Publishers Clearing House," said Jon Roska, CEO/chief creative officer for Roska Direct, a Montgomeryville, PA, direct marketing agency.


Brian Hakan, president/CEO of Hakan & Associates, contends that the deal is right on target.


"It's a good fit. These are people who also need a second chance to get a car loan," he said. "It's not done in an in-your-face sort of way."


As part of the campaign, the companies are also developing a sock puppet key chain on which participating dealers will deliver new owners' car keys.


Meanwhile, to direct marketers, the Pets.com sock puppet is the No. 1 symbol of e-commerce firms that were direct marketing companies but didn't know it. Rather than focusing on keeping customer acquisition costs under control and investing in retention efforts, companies like Pets.com spent obscene amounts of money on shortsighted, and ultimately doomed, brand-building efforts.


The last time consumers saw the Pets.com sock puppet was during the 2002 Super Bowl on an E*Trade commercial. In the spot, the famous dancing chimpanzee from a commercial run during the previous year's Super Bowl rode through a ghost town of dot-com failures. He then picked up the tattered remains of the sock puppet and shed a tear under the tagline, "invest wisely."


Two years previously, Pets.com spent more than $2 million on a Super Bowl spot all while having reportedly lost $61.8 million on $5.8 million in sales from February 1999 to Dec. 31.


Less than a year later, Pets.com was out of business.


"I hope they [1-800-Bar None and Hakan] darned the sock," Sable said.


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