Frank Lee Forensics, Sleepy the Bear and Fast Eddie Hall. The names may sound like something right out of a dime store comic book, but the characters can be found in the flesh — that is, if you happen upon Court TV’s local promotion tour. The tour, known as the Mobile Investigation Unit, is a forensics lab that has traveled the country the past two years spreading the gospel of forensics, Court TV and cable television. And spread it has. This year alone, the tour has generated 87 print press clips and 32 television broadcast spots in the 23 cities it has visited. Last year, it generated 35 print clips and 25 TV spots while touring 20 cities. More importantly, the forensics unit helped generate $1.2 million in local ad sales revenue for cable operators this year, 500% more than it did during its first run in 2002. So there’s got to be something to this cast of characters and their traveling promotion. As Cable World‘s local ad sales reporter, I knew I should investigate, so I tagged along to three different Court TV events this summer, in as many cities. (By the way, here’s the scoop on the characters: Frank Lee Forensics dons a white lab coat and wears thick black-frame glasses, a real nerd type created by Court TV’s marketing department. The bear is the mascot for Travelodge, one of the sponsors for Court TV’s traveling tour. Fast Eddie Hall is actually the nickname of the marketing and promotions specialist at Time Warner Cable’s advertising arm in Kansas City.) One reason why the tour has done so well is that it almost serves as a bridge between reality and fantasy, one that many Americans want to cross, at least in the cities I observed. Its characters are fictional-yet-realistic, making the everyday event extraordinary. On Aug. 16, a very hot summer morning, the Mobile Investigation Unit rolled into Kansas City for one of its last stops on this year’s tour to promote the grand opening of a store called the Nebraska Furniture Mart. The Nebraska Furniture Mart? What’s it doing in Kansas? More importantly, what in hell does a forensics lab have to do with furniture? I wondered the same thing myself — for days — until we reached the store. That’s when I saw the light. Actually it was Dave, the tour’s truck driver, who put it into perspective for me. “This store is bigger than malls in Hot Springs, Ark.,” Dave said upon seeing the behemoth mart. Since Dave is from Hot Springs, I’ll consider him a reliable source on this particular matter. Besides, you have to love the perspective of a man who smokes incessantly and wears sarcastic slogans on his jersey such as “I used to care but now I take a pill for that.” The Nebraska Furniture Mart claimed 712,000 square feet — or about seven city blocks. One store takes up the equivalent of 12 football fields. It’s a Best Buy, a Circuit City, a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot all rolled into one. The Nebraska Furniture Mart is so big that it lists Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in the country, as its owner. So it’s a good thing that Fast Eddie Hall and his cohort Kevin Harris, senior media consultant for Time Warner Cable’s advertising sales, landed the new store as an advertising client. In fact, another company was already interested in local sponsorship of the traveling forensics lab. But when Harris realized the promotional opportunity that Court TV’s event could provide Nebraska Furniture Mart, he pitched Court TV’s Mobile Investigation Unit to it exclusively. “These types of programs help people get comfortable with an outside company coming into a marketplace,” Harris said. After all, Nebraska Furniture Mart is headquartered in Nebraska, not Kansas. So it needed an introduction. “For us as a brand-new store, it’s all about getting people out here,” said Jeff Lind, the store’s director, that humid Saturday morning. That’s why the company launched an all-out advertising blitz — on radio, broadcast, cable and print. You name it, they did it. While Lind would not disclose the amount of the store’s ad budget, he said cable and the promotion offered by Court TV’s mobile unit was key. It helped the store target a key demographic, young families. Specifically, the types of folks interested in Court TV’s forensics lab also might buy electronic goods such as CDs, DVDs and high-definition televisions — products that new consumers don’t typically associate with a store that has the word furniture in its name. “This kind of stuff is exciting value-added for us,” Lind said. At breakfast before the store opened its doors at 10 a.m., Time Warner Cable’s Harris and Hall explained to me that they had pitched several sponsorship events to the Nebraska Furniture Mart. In the beginning, the store’s marketing executives held their cards close to the vest. First, the Nebraska Furniture Mart wanted a NASCAR event because the new Kansas City store was directly across from a racetrack. But since there was no race during the grand opening, the store had to look elsewhere. They decided against another event on breast cancer, presented by Lifetime, because they already were doing a breast cancer event on behalf of a local hospital. Court TV presented the best opportunity, Harris said. His one-sheet on the promotion offered a minimum of 250 taggable promotional commercials, 250 taggable program sponsorship spots, signage and inclusion on all handouts and press materials. The value of this promotion totaled $25,250. The store executives remained aloof until Harris realized that he could help Nebraska Furniture Mart promote Christopher Lowell, the star of Discovery Channel’s home and design show. Via Harris’s own contacts, he knew that the Nebraska Furniture Mart was going to promote Lowell on Aug. 23, the week after the grand opening. So Harris did his homework. He called Nebraska Furniture Mart executives and explained that he could custom-tag the commercials that preceded or followed the Christopher Lowell show on Discovery. These custom tags would let Kansas City know that Lowell was going to appear at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. One small step for Harris, one giant leap for Time Warner Cable. “They were very impressed with us for helping them,” Harris said. “They said, ‘Now, that’s the kind of partner we want.’” When asked how much money he landed, Harris sealed his lips. Duck calls echoed over his silence. We were breakfasting at the Yukon Basecamp Grill, a deli within another store, outdoor hunting and fishing chain Cabela’s, next to the Nebraska Furniture Mart. About 50 mounted animal heads lined the walls. After breakfast, we moseyed down to the Furniture Mart to see how well the Court TV promotion was working. The mobile unit has six kiosks that present clues to a mystery posed by Court TV. Interested participants learn how to decipher DNA clues, hair samples and footprints as they try to solve the mystery. The event also has a Suzuki jeep out front, one of the tour’s national sponsors, and signage painted all over Dave’s truck. Despite all this, the Court TV event was rather small in the big picture. It was just one of many events at the grand opening. Nebraska Furniture Mart ran a well-greased press machine complete with clowns twisting balloons, characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants waving to visitors, top designers and homemakers giving presentations and plenty of free food and free gifts. But Court TV’s forensics lab held its own. Many of the people I approached at the lab said they came to the grand opening because of Court TV. They’d seen the commercials on television or read about the opening in the papers. One retired couple, Jack and Dianna Teeter, came to the opening to pick up some toy dalmatians that were being given away. Neither realized that the Nebraska Furniture Mart carried more than just furniture. “I was surprised,” Dianna said. “It’s more like Best Buy. Now Best Buy is going to have some competition.” The Teeters had checked out the new store briefly on Friday night, collected their dalmatians, then came back the next day because they wanted to see the traveling forensics lab. Dianna watches Forensic Files on Court TV all the time. So when the unit opened its tent doors in front of the Nebraska Furniture Mart that Saturday morning, the Teeters were there. They also bought something at the store — a digital scale — a sale that Nebraska Furniture Mart can directly attribute to Court TV. Another devoted Court TV fan forced three of her friends to go to the grand opening just so she could try and solve the mystery. “In my household, we’d watch this 24 hours a day if we could,” she said of Court TV. They found out about the event via the commercials on television. In fact, about a quarter of all the people questioned at the three events I attended said they came because they saw a commercial on TV or read about it on their e-mail or local paper. The commercials all featured Frank Lee Forensics. At the mobile unit, Frank Lee gives demonstrations about simple ways to find clues, such as burning super glue. The chemicals in super glue, once burned, will adhere to the oil left by a finger, helping illuminate fingerprints on a clear surface that would otherwise be difficult to see with the naked eye. Frank Lee’s demonstration intrigued consumers in whatever city the lab traveled to. In Portland, Ore., the Lloyd Center mall was the local host for the Court TV event. Seven cable systems across the country actually had advertising clients that also served as the local hosts of the event — helping bring in extra ad revenue dollars. The Lloyd Center, which has been a client of Comcast Ad Sales in Portland for several years, always looks for event-driven activities, said Jamie Sexton, marketing manager for the system’s advertising arm. Lucky for Sexton, the Court TV proposal plopped into her hands right when the Lloyd Center’s annual ad commitment came up for renewal. While Sexton was pretty confident the mall would renew their agreement regardless of her offer, she didn’t realize that she could get more ad revenue from them. “They enhanced their presence considerably,” she said. While Sexton would not disclose the amount they allocated to Comcast, she said Court TV’s event definitely helped seal the deal. Promotional events are always a boost for the system, she added. Chris Moore, account supervisor for the Lloyd Center’s advertising agency, McKee Wallwork Henderson, selected the Court TV event because it fit into the company’s core strategy. “The whole strategy of the Lloyd Center is to be more of a destination rather than to be a place to just drop in and get something and leave,” Moore said. The Court TV event was different from most events. It was cool and interactive. It was educational but entertaining, realistic but fictional, Moore added. Although he was a bit nervous about forensics at a mall in the beginning, the character of Frank Lee Forensics ultimately sold the event. “He’s a little dorky, but he’s intriguing to kids.” So Lloyd Center signed on the dotted line. And the mall plopped down 60% of its advertising budget to cable this year. In 2001, it only allocated 25% of its ad budget to cable. Ann Grimmer, Lloyd Center’s marketing director in Portland, particularly enjoyed the forensics lab’s turnkey approach. “It’s nice to have an event of that caliber that we don’t have to oversee,” she said. Yep, Court TV takes care of it. Dave rolls the truck in, Court TV staffers set it up, Frank Lee Forensics teaches detective tricks, the staff entertains the guests and fingerprints the children, then they roll out of town. And before the unit gets to town, Court TV sends the local cable system commercials with extra airtime so an account executive can tag their local sponsor’s particular information. Court TV even brings in the Suzuki Jeep and, where appropriate, invites Sleepy the Bear to come and greet kids. In Portland, Sleepy found the air-conditioned mall a bit more accommodating than Kansas City’s humidity. And while kids automatically took a liking to Frank Lee Forensics, the big blue bear didn’t hurt. The bear, furnished by Travelodge, was just another hook to get the word out about Court TV, its connection to forensics and the local cable system that supports the network. Children and their parents strolling through the mall, unaware of Court TV or forensics for that matter, were drawn to this big fuzzy thing, snapping photos first and then checking out the forensics lab later. And where there are kids, there’s news, especially on a slow summer day. Larry Crnich, a news photographer for Portland’s local Fox 12 station, was there to film the event as one of his assignments. “I think forensics is really popular right now,” he said of his assignment. “And it has kids. When its comes to the television news, you can’t go wrong with kids and animals.” Court TV’s SVP of marketing Evan Shapiro knows full well the news pull of children. “We needed something that could generate press for us,” Shapiro said. “We built the tour to be a press machine. We also made sure that every time we went to town, we weren’t up against the state fair. We did our homework from the PR standpoint.” Frank Lee Forensics, for example, was first going to be a hip MTV-style character. They needed someone exciting, entertaining. Not your everyday bland forensics expert. But after seeing actor Jordan Hall all snazzed up as if he was going to shoot his own MTV video, they tossed the idea. They realized they needed a quintessential nerd type. Out came the thick-frame glasses and lab coat, and Frank Lee Forensics was born. They created Frank Lee bobble-heads and sent clips to the local press before the tour came to town. While he wasn’t a character on a Court TV show, he was someone that almost everybody could identify with. As a result, local reporters, from newspapers to broadcast stations, have covered the event almost religiously. Crnich filmed it for Fox in Portland. The press in Kansas City was all over the Nebraska Furniture Mart grand opening. And a news director for the Desert Advocate in Phoenix went to a mall on the outskirts of town to personally cover the event. The Advocate‘s news director Alan Richardson said his wife saw an ad on television about the event. So as a journalist and as a father, he thought he could bring his children and cover the event as well. As he took notes, he explained that he was going to stress the event’s unique offering of fingerprinting children, an issue that parents such as himself are concerned about. As part of the tour, and working with the KlaasKids Foundation to help identify youngsters, Court TV’s Mobile Investigation Unit has one table dedicated to fingerprinting children. The unit and other events by Court TV have generated 40,000 sets of fingerprints for parents to keep on record. “I think this is pretty neat,” Richardson said. “I even went and took a picture of the truck.” Yes, back to Dave and his truck, because he goes wherever Court TV’s event goes. The truck is actually a moving ad for Court TV’s Mobile Investigation Unit. All of this advertising and extra press helped Jeff Harrelson, account executive for Cox Communications’ advertising arm in Phoenix, close a deal with his ad client, the law firm of Petersen Johnson. While Harrelson had been working to convince the firm to advertise on cable for months, one of the partners was still holding back. As a relatively astute media buyer, the partner scrutinized every piece of research Harrelson handed to him. They had advertised on cable before, but only sporadically. But when Harrelson presented the Court TV offer, boom, the law firm signed up for a three-month advertising flight two days later. “It was literally that fast for me,” he said. “This was an opportunity for me to help them be a little bit more long term.” On top of the commercial spots, the law firm got to display its brochures and cards at a table that Court TV set up in a mall in Phoenix. Petersen Johnson’s sponsorship definitely helped get the word out. Many of the mall-goers in Phoenix who were questioned about the mobile forensics lab said they saw a commercial for it on television. One consumer even got an e-mail from Cox Communications announcing the event. Jennifer Mullins, 42, and her son, Alex, 9, drove 25 minutes to come to the mall — specifically for the Court TV event. “We saw it on the advertisements on Cox,” she said. “I’m interested in forensics. I’m an aspiring mystery writer.” Mullins was one of many diverse folks at the Court TV events I observed. Out of all three events, one thing was for sure — Court TV’s event and its characters lured a range of people. The ages spanned from toddlers to retirees. The ethnic mix ran the gamut, from black to white to Asian to Hispanic. Hairdos ranged from dreads to crew cuts. Families, friends and loners showed up. Something about it attracted nearly every strand of American culture. One tourist from Australia even asked when Court TV was coming down under. Perhaps the event lured so many people because Frank Lee Forensics and his entourage are really the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, said Jim Chabin, CEO of Promax BDA, the marketing and promotion association for electronic media. The event ties a national cable network to a local community under the guise of solving a mystery, attracting hordes of people because every community has its own unsolved mysteries, he said. “Most networks have a challenge about creating a character that can go from market to market and make each local MSO thrilled,” Chabin said. “In the case of a crime solving, it is something that is both civically positive and reflects well on the local system operator. It’s kind of a two-for-one deal. “What they have done is unique and brilliant,” Chabin continued. “They found a combination of characteristics, they placed an actor in that role and they stayed true to their brand, which is very, very key to all of this, and it works brilliantly. So in essence, it’s like the same kind of things you would do to create a fiction drama. It may prove so popular it turns into a television show.” So will Frank Lee become the star of a new comic-book-style crime series? No, says Court TV’s Shapiro. At least not yet he won’t.