South Park: A Study On Marketing An Anniversary

Cannes Film Festival

M. Galas

On Wednesday, October 5th, a brand new episode of "South Park” will air, marking the 15th season of what Entertainment Weekly readers voted "The Greatest Animated TV Series."  To market this milestone season, Comedy Central started by speaking with the "South Park" creators to get their input.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker pointed to the key element that has elevated their success over the years: the fans.  They shared their strong advice as to what they wanted to avoid in the marketing campaigns with Comedy Central’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Walter Levitt and his team.

"When the conversations started about how we should market the anniversary, they were the first to say ‘Let’s not make it about us, let’s make it about the fans.’  It’s quite remarkable in terms of how the fan base has maintained and grown over the past 15 years," said Levitt.  "Once we made the decision to celebrate and thank the people who have gotten us through 15 years, everything else was able to flow naturally."

The first step in marketing the show’s anniversary came in dubbing 2011 "The Year of the Fan."  With the actual birth date of "South Park" on August 13 (the first show aired that date in 1997) the summer became a natural focal point for the marketing team, and nothing felt more natural than bringing  a live "The Year of the Fan" experience to the mecca of fandom: Comic-Con.

In developing the idea of what exactly that live experience should entail, Levitt and the marketing team had internal brainstorm sessions regarding the layout and look of the exhibit.  They then presented a rough concept to a select group of event marketing companies that specialize in on site event work, and sifted through the returned proposals.

"The proposal of the company we eventually worked with, Pop to Life, really stood out to us because it showed the love of, and appreciation for, the show and the characters," said Levitt.  "They were clearly fans of the show itself, and it made it easy for us to say this is the company we want to work with."

Levitt and his staff worked closely with the Pop to Life crew in assigning stations that would engage visitors in a life-sized replica of the  "South Park" town center.  These included a cafeteria that served sno-cones and Cartman’s favorite snack, "cheesy poofs," a karaoke stage, photo and video booths including an area for recording testimonials, a game room, an online avatar creation area, a fan art gallery, and more.  Trees and fake snow was brought in to line the town center, along with an assortment of building facades, some that housed cooling units for over heated visitors. 

Levitt and his team also wanted to insure that social networking was incorporated into the live event.  They established a partnership with Foursquare to promote the experience and offered an exclusive "Year of the Fan"  t-shirt to anyone that could show they checked into the South Park Experience on Foursquare.  Over the three days they gave out all their t-shirts and had over 10,000 people checked into Foursquare.  Additionally, photos taken at the photo booths were posted on the South Park website, www.southparkstudios.com.    Levitt and his team watched as fans searched for their photos and posted them on their personal social networking sites.

"A big objective of ours was to make the fans who were on site at Comic-Con happy and really celebrate them," said Levitt.  "We also wanted to be able to celebrate the experience with fans who were not able to be at Comic-Con, and it feels like social media has really helped us to achieve that."

The Southparkstudios.com website is also a focal point in helping reach the global fan base throughout the celebration of "The Year of the Fan."  When the 15th anniversary celebration began in April, fans were invited to post artwork they created that related to the show.  That contest remained open through May when the artwork was judged and the winning artwork was displayed in the Comic-Con art gallery.  Video testimonials, including those shot at Comic-Con, will be posted on the site.  Fans can create "South Park" avatars of themselves on the website, and there is a comment and feedback section where fans have been posting their favorite "South Park" moments.  Additional contests and other anniversary happenings will be posted on the website throughout the remainder of The Year of the Fan.

Comedy Central will also play a major role in honoring the "Year of the Fan" promotion.  In addition to seven new episodes that begin airing on October 5th, fan testimonials will be incorporated into the on air promotions of the show.  On October 9th, a special documentary called "6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park" will debut.  Documentarian Arthur Bradford tailed Trey Parker and Matt Stone over the course of six days as they turned an idea into a 22 minute show.

"The shows episodes are only written and produced leading up to each weekly air.  To Matt and Trey’s credit, they have always kept the show fresh and new and current because they are always dealing with the most topical issues of the day," said Levitt.  "As they evolve and the world around them evolves, the show continues to evolve.   This is a chance to remind folks who have lapsed in viewing over the past few years that the show is still current and vibrant."

And, knowing many fans were unable to get a bag of "Cheesy Poofs" at Comic-Con, Levitt and his team have worked out a very special deal.

"They will be available at retail outlets through Frito Lay in the fall, so the real die hard fans of the show will be able to buy real live cheesy poofs," said Levitt.  "They will be able to eat them or put them on the shelves as a reminder of the Year of the Fan.  They are actually 100% naturally unnatural."

To learn more about the events, episodes and activities related to "The Year of the Fan," visit:

www.southparkstudios.com