How you can book Cartman, Spongebob or the Cookie Monster for your next campaign

Any given advertisement that airs across Australia and New Zealand is 25 times more likely to feature a celebrity, sports star, or a musician, than a fictional character.

Born Licensing wants this ratio to change, and with a ‘client list’ of thousands of beloved characters from some of the biggest rights holders in the world, they may just have the perfect spokes-elf for your next investment ad. And, as anyone who has launched a campaign with a troubled celebrity will appreciate, Smurfette or Winnie the Pooh won’t later appear on a talk show slamming your brand, either.

Mumbrella spoke to David Born, CEO of Born Licensing, about how you can have a Ninja Turtle spruiking your gluten-free pizza bases in your next marketing blitz.

This is an amazing idea – can you loosely explain what a campaign using a fictional character can, and does, entail?

Licensing a character for an advertising campaign can be a similar process to hiring a famous celebrity. The character can be woven into the creative, whatever that may be. It could be a character from a film, TV show, cartoon, video game, or book. It could be a live action character played by a person (e.g. Buddy the Elf for ASDA) or a non-human character (e.g. Optimus Prime for Direct Line).

The character could be the star of the ad, such as this campaign with Chubbs Peterson from Happy Gilmore for PGA Tour Superstore, or could play a smaller role to add a pop culture element to a spot like the (below) campaign with Winnie the Pooh for British Airways, which was one of many stars featured in the centenary campaign.

How many characters, and which major ones, do you have in your ‘client list’?

We currently have thousands of incredible characters on our ‘client list’. Some are generationally popular with strong heritage such as Cookie Monster, Charlie Brown, and Popeye. We have characters trusted by parents and adored by children like Peppa Pig, and PAW Patrol. Some are unsuitable for children such as Eric Cartman and Beavis and Butthead. And some are having their biggest year yet, like Barbie!

These characters are just a few that we represent thanks to the agreements we have in place with 15 rights holders including Universal Studios, Paramount, Hasbro, Mattel, Sesame Workshop, and others. We’ve launched our character roster which currently features over 100 represented characters, but at the moment includes only a very small portion of our portfolio. We will be adding more represented characters to the website over the coming months.

How closely do you work with the rightsholders for the characters – or are they hands off?-Obviously, with characters aimed at kids, there are limits to how they can be used. How do you negotiate this?

We align closely with the rights holders throughout key stages of development on any campaign we work on. All of them have great interest in ensuring that their characters are being utilised in a way that is true to their nature and doesn’t seem ‘off brand’.

There is a detailed approval process that we facilitate which allows the rights holder to review and provide feedback at various stages of the production process. It’s in everyone’s best interest, especially the advertiser, for the character and creative to feel authentic. If anything feels too forced, the fans won’t be happy!

What is the turnaround time with something like this? Is it just for printed work, or is animation involved? Is voice acting involved?

There are a number of variables that can determine the timelines around developing a campaign starring a fictional character. For example, each rights holder has a different way of working with different turnaround times.

Some can require ten-plus working days to review materials due to the amount of stakeholders involved, while others can move a lot quicker. The creative will also play a major factor in the timing. If it’s simply incorporating an existing clip into a campaign (e.g. SpongeBob SquarePants for Ritz) then it can be a relatively quick turnaround.

If it requires detailed costumes to be made (e.g. Robocop for Direct Line) more time needs to be allowed in pre-production for the development and approval process. If it requires animation then there is a big post production component which can be time intensive (e.g. Donatello from TMNT for Direct Line).

Any campaign which involves an animated character speaking will need to hire the actual voice over artist for that character, or a soundalike which could also be allowed (e.g. Mr. Krabs for Envestnet).

Do you get blowback from people’s beloved characters being used to sell products?

I’m a big believer that people will always find something to complain about.

On the rare occasion I’ve seen people on X (formally known as Twitter) sharing some harsh views on a campaign that stars a fictional character. But, honestly, I see more complaints about celebrities. Most of the time, I see people who are enjoying the opportunity to experience one of their favourite characters in a new way.

For example, the ad for Moneysupermarket which starred Skeletor and He-Man dancing to Dirty Dancing was a viral hit. The advertiser went from 100 mentions on Twitter per day to 35,000 an hour. Or the campaign starring Buddy the Elf for ASDA, which was named as the most effective ad campaign in the UK for 2022.

The key is really in the creative. It needs to feel authentic and can’t be simply SpongeBob selling a car or laundry detergent. It needs to be clever creative which entertains the viewer and doesn’t feel like the character is selling out.

What are the obvious, and not so obvious benefits of such a campaign?

Casting a fictional star in an ad campaign allows advertisers to tap into an existing set of positive emotions, strong awareness and brand credibility. They’re a shortcut to capturing the viewers attention, and often results in people wanting to share the spot with their friends and family, or on social media.

Characters offer a lot of similar benefits to hiring a famous celebrity, but often without the risks. SpongeBob is never going to attract negative press that could tarnish an advertisers reputation by cheating on his spouse, getting caught drink driving, or saying something racist on social media.

Adidas reported a $540m net loss last year, thanks to their public breakup with Kanye West, following his antisemitic remarks. If Adidas had chosen a fictional star instead, the last few years would have been much easier for them.

Anything else you feel it’s valuable to highlight to any potential new clients?

We have a lot of great data through an IPSOS Mori study we commissioned, which compared how the Australian public felt about fictional characters in advertising compared to celebrities, sports stars and musicians. Here were the key findings:

  • The Australian public most like to see characters in advertising (35%), compared to celebrities (31%), musicians (16%), and sports stars (18%).
  • Ad adverts in Australia or NZ are over 25 x more likely to feature a celebrity, sports star or musician over a fictional character
  • A fictional character is more likely to capture attention, be remembered the next day, be shared and provoke a purchase of a product/service than a celebrity, sports star or musician.
  • 6 out of 10 Australians think that a famous fictional character is most likely to capture their attention when compared to a brand character

Find out more here



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