Eat'n Park's animated Christmas Star ad celebrates 30 years
The complaints about holiday commercials coming too early this year probably started sometime in October, when discount retailer Target boldly began running a festive TV spot with the script, "The holidays are coming. And they're going to be big."
Over the next several weeks, viewers aren't likely to stop the critiques. Sharing opinions on holiday ads is an all-in spectator sport for Americans, some of whom have created Facebook pages with names such as, "The lady from the Target Christmas commercials," (497 likes); "I'm already tired of Christmas commercials!" (48 likes); and "Those weird Christmas Radio Shack commercials" (74 likes).
In 2011, the sheer number of holiday ads grew 30 percent over the previous year, according to Ace Metrix, an ad tracking firm in Mountain View, Calif.
Both the intense scrutiny and the competition are among the reasons the marketing staff at Eat'n Park, the restaurant chain based in Homestead, reconsiders every year whether or not to bring back the company's now 30-year-old "Christmas Star" commercial.
The ad made in 1982 doesn't even look particularly modern anymore, noted Jeff Broadhurst, president and CEO of Eat'n Park Hospitality Group.
There's an old-fashioned feel to the animation and to the story of the star that can't reach the top of the branches until the tree leans over to help out.
But the tale is heart-warming, and many Pittsburghers -- a generation of whom grew up seeing the spot every holiday -- love it.
Eat'n Park starts running the spot on TV in late November each year, said Mr. Broadhurst, and then the emails start coming in from people who say it marks one of the official launches of the season for them. He expects the spot will get 20,000 views on YouTube and Facebook this year, meaning people go online looking for it.
It would be tempting to say the commercial has a more enduring fan base than other TV ad classics produced in the 1980s such as the Folgers coffee spot with the son coming home or the Hershey kisses as bells ringing out, "We Wish you a Merry Christmas."
But those run nationally, while the Eat'n Park "Christmas Star" spot belongs to -- and in -- Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Broadhurst said. Here the vintage styling brings welcome nostalgia, where the commercial might seemed odd if it were dropped into unfamiliar territory, he said.
The commercial was crafted a few years before the chain's signature Smiley Cookie, as part of a fundraising campaign to help pay for charity care at Children's Hospital. Eat'n Park was already into holiday projects, having raised donations by making a Christmas album featuring staff from the office and the restaurants.
The idea was to make a holiday commercial. Jim Broadhurst, chairman, recalled telling the team at advertising firm Ketchum he liked the feel of the Budweiser Clydesdales spot that just shows the big horses pulling a wagon through a snowy scene with an announcer wishing customers the very best during the season.
That spot wasn't commercial in the traditional sense, the elder Mr. Broadhurst said, and that's what he wanted. "We're going to do something that's not going to promote a product," he recalled saying.
Eat'n Park does benefit from affection for the ad, in part because it reminds people that the company may be diversifying into different formats and corporate ventures but it is a hometown company that appreciates its local support, Jeff Broadhurst said.
While the spot itself may have the feel of a different time, ambitious plans crafted around the 30-year anniversary don't.
In December, the company will put QR codes on menus so smartphone users can pull up the spot. In addition, merchandise in the form of Christmas Star ornaments, T-shirts and mugs will be sold, with some of the proceeds benefiting area children's hospitals. A new SendtheStar online feature will let people email holiday wishes with a link to the spot.
And, in true Pittsburgh style, the commercial is scheduled to be re-created in laser show form as part of the Santa Spectacular at Light-Up Night Friday evening at Point State Park. That extravaganza is being developed by Lightwave International, a company based in Eighty Four that has done work on international concert tours as well as creating the Batman signal that appeared Downtown during the filming of the recent movie.
"When the Eat'n Park commercial comes on the TV and the Horne's tree goes up, those are the two starting points of Christmas," said Graham Small, operations manager of Lightwave International, whose staff is filled with people from the region. "We've grown up with the commercial."
He said this week's laser show will interpret the Christmas Star message in a modern way, but with the respect due a local icon.
Jim Broadhurst, who was there at the beginning, admitted that he's kind of shocked the commercial proved to have such staying power and he doesn't rule out a future update.
"At some point, we'll change it," he predicted. "But if we do, it will be the same kind of thing."
First Published November 14, 2012 12:00 am