Theatergoers Sit Through 'Live Ads' Before Plays

The show must go on, .. but first this commercial message.

When theatergoers at Piccadilly's Comedy Theater settled into their chairs last week to catch the comedy, "Steptoe and Son," they first witnessed a unique pre-performance "live advertisement."

The commercial, which took the form of a mini-play, got just one run, but it will live on as the cast hits Dublin, Madrid and New York theaters in the spring.

The new marketing gimmick -- which promotes London tourism, not the latest BMW or household cleaner -- seemed to garner a positive reaction.

"I'm so bored of the normal ads we see everywhere and usually I ignore them but I couldn't ignore this one and there was no escape -- I couldn't switch channels!" said one American tourist in the audience.

Glued to the Stage?

Finding a novel way to reach a captive audience is exactly what motivated London tourism promoters to finance the mini-play.

"Theatre is one of the last bastions of non-commercial zones so this is breaking new ground," said James Bidwell, chief executive of Visit London. "We wanted to do something which would create excitement, some inspiration and attract people to London and also to focus on theatre."

The live-ad idea came from a previous campaign when Visit London marketers drove five London cabs on a promotional tour across the United States. They liked the idea of taking something to different places around the world.

The mini-commercials, however, offer much more flexibility.

"We can make changes up to the minute, adapting the script," said Ken Kelling, Visit London's communications director. "You cannot do that with a normal advertisement."

First, This Commercial Message

Before "Steptoe and Son" began, a young woman stepped out on stage to remind the audience to turn off all cell phones. She stressed that it was especially important because it was the world premiere of the first theatrical advertisement.

Then as she left the stage, a haranguing ring beeped from one of the boxes in the first tier.

A woman dressed in a pink suit shuffled though her things and blared in her cell phone, "No, no, you're not bothering me, I'm at the theater but the show hasn't started."

A spotlight then shone down on a young woman sitting at a desk as well as on the woman in the audience as they discussed London's tourist attractions, from the zoo to the museums.

Audience members by now had caught on that the rude theatergoer was part of the ad promoting the city's hot spots and cultural venues. The next snippet involved a couple discussing evening plans with a cameo by a famous British actor (each city will feature its own star talent).

The ad ended with an image projected against the curtain with the words "Totally London."

The 400 audience members applauded at the end of the skit.

One of a Kind or the Next Big Thing?

One Londoner in the audience said the ad caught him by surprise.

"The ad was unusual, I wasn't expecting it because I hadn't seen anything like it before," he said.

Kelling sees this one-of-a-kind way to promote a worthy cause, not the start of the next big thing on Madison Avenue.

"If soap or chocolate bars were featured, theaters wouldn't want any part of it," he said. "I don't think it will open the door to well-known brands."

Comedy Theater producer Rupert Gavin said he liked Visit London's live ad because it promoted the theater but he's also hoping such ads will live on for financial reasons.

"We could put on more new work; we could do more daring things if there was additional income stream," Gavin said.

Visit London's live ads will launch in New York City at the end of May, after hitting Dublin and Madrid. The mini-plays are in addition to a traditional ad campaign including ads on television and in magazines.

No word yet whether the ad has convinced more tourists to visit London's many attractions.