May the Force (of Marketing) Be With You

May 10, 2005 — -- When Mr. Potato Head was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force and emerged as Darth Tater, with helmet, cape and lightsaber, we knew this would be a year for "Star Wars" marketing like no other.

Suddenly, Chewbacca is here, ready to soak you with his Wookiee Water Blaster and Darth Vader will do battle with any 7-year-old armed with a light-up SaberSpoon pulled from a Kellogg's cereal box.

The final installment of the most successful film franchise in history, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," hits theaters May 19, and the onslaught of advertising has begun.

Already we're seeing the M&M mascots dressed up as "Star Wars" characters and splayed on billboards, candy wrappers and NASCAR vehicles driven by Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler.

Burger King and Cingular Wireless are featuring R2-D2, C-3PO and Darth Vader in TV ads, while Pepsi has nailed down exclusive rights to Yoda. Burger King is also unveiling a "Star Wars" scratch-and-win game and star-and-lightning-bolt-shaped chicken tenders.

While marketing for "Shrek," "Harry Potter" and "The Incredibles" movies has been intense, "Star Wars" has a much broader target audience. The space saga began in 1977 -- and three prequels over the last six years have made the Force strong in a whole new generation.

Here's a look at some of the more interesting toys and advertising campaigns hitching their wagon to the Millennium Falcon and other star cruisers. Believe it or not, there are also several groups using movie hype to raise money for charity and get people to go to church.

1. The Darth Vader Voice Changer Mask

Destined to be one of the hottest toys this Christmas -- or at least an amusing way to deal with pesky telephone solicitors -- is Hasbro's $30 strap-on mask and chest plate that will transform your voice into the diabolical tones of Darth Vader.

The headgear runs on three AAA batteries. Speak into the microphone, and suddenly, you'll sound just like James Earl Jones, the voice of the Sith Lord. A career as a Verizon spokesman may be in your future.

2. The Dark Side of Computing

Don't come crying to me when you get thrown out of the library for heavy breathing. You'll just have to tell the security guard, "It's not me, it's my Darth Vader computer."

Lucasfilm and Alienware have developed a new line of desktop and notebook computers with a design and special features inspired a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The "Dark Side" versions have the creepy Vader look, while the "Light Side" is an all-Jedi design. Each computer is packed with exclusive content, including video and music highlights from the space saga, games and free membership in the "Star Wars" fan club.

And if you can find the time, you can also use these computers for school, unless you want to try that old Ewok-ate-my-homework excuse.

3. The Cellular Cry of the Wookiee

Han Solo's hairy sidekick was always a 7-foot-tall crybaby. But now, Chewbacca is screaming for money. Cingular Wireless is offering a wide range of "Star Wars" ring tones. If you attend the premiere and forget to turn off your phone, the entire audience could be treated to hearing "May the Force Be With You" from the cellular device ringing in your pocket.

Among the Jedi Ring Tone offerings, available for $2.49 each, are C-3PO proclaiming, "I am fluent in over 6 million forms of communication." If that's Jar Jar Binks calling, tell him I'm not home.

4. Lego My Game Boy

Just in case you didn't think that every form of "Star Wars" video game had already hit the market, LEGO toys has now released its own version, allowing players to assume the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Queen Amidala -- and you'll see them all in their LEGO incarnations.

Just to get this straight, this is a video game based on a toy, based on a movie. As Yoda might say, "Snap together, we all are."

The "Star Wars" LEGO sets are the most popular special series the toy company has ever created. The game -- available for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Game Boy Advance systems -- follows the characters through all three prequels. As always, C-3PO seems to have a missing part.

5. Got a Bad Case of 'Prequel-itis'? Call the Geek Squad

If you're a diehard fan, you might be scared that you'll have to miss work to attend the midnight premiere. But never fear, the geeks are here.

The Geek Squad -- a band of 7,000 computer support specialists -- has posted fail-safe instructions for skipping work on a day when absenteeism is expected to be especially high. More than 60,000 people have already downloaded these instructions, and we can assume some office supervisors are among them.

The Geek Squad is setting up docking bays outside select theaters so that malingering workers can check e-mail and pretend to be doing their jobs. The company is also offering "emergency computer staffing" for businesses expecting to be hit hard by the Dark Side.

6. Church to Jedi Fans: 'Join the Rebellion'

You don't have to be Luke Skywalker to set out on spiritual journey of untamed adventure. The Epic Church in Utica, Mich., is hoping to inspire congregants with a "Join the Rebellion" series of services this month, pegged to "Star Wars" fans.

"Luke Skywalker was pulled from an average insignificant life into one of risk, mystery and destiny," said Aaron Kazmierczak, a church spokesman. "Luke's life was transformed when he discovered his place in the story. Our mission at Epic Church is to challenge people to discover their role in God's epic story."

Church attendance shot up 50 percent when the "Star Wars" program started last week. It will culminate with services on Sunday, May 22, at a local theater, where people can see the noon showing of "Revenge of the Sith." Tickets to the screening are being sold at the May 15 services.

While Skywalker's life shouldn't be confused with the "Book of Luke," Epic Church aspires to help people discover God through music, video and performing arts "while enjoying a cup of Starbucks coffee," according to promotional material.

7. Imperial 'Stand-a-thon' Storm Troopers

Just in case you wanted to shout "Get a life!" to the Darth Vader look-alikes and mega-fans clad in white armor who have already been waiting in line for weeks, just remember that some folks are turning the worship of intergalactic science fiction into a charitable mission.

At the Ziegfeld, one of New York City's landmark theaters, about a dozen fans are engaged in a "Stand-a-thon," urging members to contribute to Starlight Starbright, a charity for severely ill children, for every hour they wait in line. About $33,000 was raised on similar lines in New York before "Star Wars" premieres in 1999 and 2002.

"We all know what it's like to go through this insanity," said Steve Lorenzo, a 39-year-old technical writer and Stand-a-thon veteran. Previous pre-premiere theater campouts produced long friendships, and even a few marriages, he said, while standing beside another fan adorned in the silvery uniform of bounty hunter Boba Fett.

"It's like a class or family reunion, even though it's not."

Another fan is turning a video game marathon into a fund-raiser for the Portland, Ore., Schools Foundation. Brandon Erickson, 25, will attempt to play the original "Star Wars" arcade game for 60 hours straight in the hours leading up to the premiere.

"If I complete this challenge, I hope George Lucas grants me the rank of Jedi Master," he said. "That will look great on my résumé."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" ispublished Tuesdays.