Select Page

David Born, head of Born Licensing, is responsible for getting beloved IP into ads from top brands. His research indicates that consumers prefer fictional characters to real people so he's explained how marketers can navigate this trend. 

When asked who would most likely capture their attention in an ad out of Wonder Woman or Gal Gadot, 78% of the UK public selected the fictional superhero over the otherworldly actress that plays her. 38% the UK public said they ‘most like’ to see fictional characters in advertising compared to celebrities (22%), musicians (22%) and sports stars (18%).

This was one of the many fascinating insights when we asked Ipsos MORI to survey the UK public about how they feel about fictional characters in advertising. However, when reviewing over 4,000 UK ads from 2018-2020 we discovered that fictional characters only appear in advertising 1.1% of the time. Compare that to celebrities at 6.2%, sports stars at 5.9% and musicians a 2.4%.

It got me thinking about why we see less fictional characters in ads than we'd like to see. 

I have been in the world of character licensing for almost 15 years and have noticed that creative agencies and brands have less experience in this area, so they tend to work with what they know in celebrities, sports stars and musicians. I have heard from plenty of creatives who were told to avoid writing fictional characters into scripts because their production team didn’t know how to handle the licensing.

Celebrities, sports stars and musicians have been appearing frequently in advertising for decades, agencies who how to operate in this space. That’s not the case when licensing fictional characters. There are fewer experts in this space. I'm one of the few that focuses only on this niche area.

Other issues include licensing fees being too high, agencies not knowing who to speak to about licensing, and ultimately, choosing an alternate script being chosen to produce.

The earlier a licensing expert is on hand, the more likely the many hurdles that present themselves in the development stage can be addressed and worked through. A great example of this is the ‘We’re On It’ campaign with Direct Line, which features fictional characters RoboCop, Donatello (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Bumblebee (Transformers).

Creative agency, Saatchi & Saatchi London, brought Born Licensing on very early in the development process to help them find the characters that worked within the parameters of timing, budget and creative. We explored over 150 different characters owned by over 40 different rights holders. This allowed the script to stay on the table and not fall by the wayside.

I’ve also experienced the challenges encountered when being brought into a process too late. I’ve seen the most incredible scripts that will never see the light of day, because it was too late for us to address critical issues. Sometimes we’ll be approached with a finished script, that has been presented and approved by the client, with the expectation that the licensing will be a simple process.

All involved are incredibly disappointed to learn that the desired character is tied up with another brand in that category, or the licensing costs are way more than what had been budgeted, or that there simply isn’t enough time to work through the contract and approvals processes to meet a hard deadline, or that the proposed creative doesn’t mesh with how the rights holder wants to position their character.

One example was a script for an FMCG client and a product that was considered to be high in sugar. The script was written around a particular character owned by a rights holder that doesn’t allow their characters to be associated with HFSS (High Fat, Sugar and salt) food products. The script was brilliant and with more time we could have found an alternate character that served the same purpose. Unfortunately, there was no time available for us to work through other options and the script was abandoned for an (in our opinion) much less impactful one.

I would say that 80% of the scripts that don’t make it can be saved through creative flexibility and the right talent on the team. 

We expand on the Ipsos MORI study findings along with seven areas in which we think improvements can be made in our white paper ‘How Fictional Characters are Under-utilised in Advertising’ here.