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A message to y'all Johnsons out there

Brenda Leigh won't make the family reunion. And TNT has a clever marketing campaign.

By EMILY NIPPS
Published July 2, 2006


The little yellow envelope was marked "Johnson Reunion Committee." I figured it was an update about my husband's family reunion, held every year at a Baptist church in Yadkinville, N.C.

We didn't plan to go to the reunion, hadn't in years, but I tore open the envelope anyway, out of curiosity.

Inside was one of those personal update letters, printed on plain, white paper with what appeared to be a beginning-level word processing program. It was from Brenda Leigh Johnson, whose name sounded kind of familiar. "Hi to y'all Johnsons out there," it began.

Brenda couldn't come to the reunion and felt terrible about it. She was stuck "in the tar pits of Los Angeles" again this year, and everyone would just have to make do with her mama, daddy, brothers, two sisters-in-law, three nephews and two nieces.

"I hate these impersonal mass letters," she apologized, but wanted to "catch y'all up." She moved from Atlanta to L.A. last year to become deputy chief of an LAPD murder squad. She hasn't talked to Hart since she and he divorced, and she's "proudly back to using the Johnson family name."

Brenda said she has a new cat named Kitty. And don't tell her mama, she confided, but her FBI agent boyfriend asked her to move in with him. "Heaven knows what I'm going to do about it, but I thought y'all should know," she wrote.

I was so intrigued by this woman's personal drama that I zoomed right through the part where she talked about the great job she's doing at the LAPD. She's being featured on a new TV show called The Closer on TNT, she said. The season premiere was on June 12 I had missed it. "Watch and let me know what you think of my new hairdo," she said.

I showed my husband the letter so he could share my annoyance at this L.A. big shot's condescending signoff: "Hope you eat a big helping of Momo's banana pudding and Aunt Valerie's pecan pie for me. I miss y'all to death!"

* * *

I like to think I'm a smart person. I never thought Bill Gates would send me a check if I forwarded his e-mails or that perfume vendors would poison me. I take nothing at face value. I look at every piece of unsolicited mail with a raised eyebrow.

But this one, I'm embarrassed to say, had me fooled. It turns out Brenda Leigh Johnson is not a member of my husband's vast extended family. She's the fictional lead character on The Closer, which I learned only after talking to my father-in-law, who found out by talking to other Johnson relatives. And just like TNT wanted, he watched the show's premiere.

How could I have been duped? Well, you have to know the Johnsons. They're a huge family. They say "y'all." They may very well have a Momo who makes banana pudding and an Aunt Valerie who makes pecan pie.

And so must a lot of other Johnsons, apparently. Some who received the letter logged on to TNT's Web site to actually talk to Brenda, which made me feel clever in comparison.

"Hi, just wanted to let Brenda know we received the letter 6/13/06 and we are a little confused," jjohnson posted. "Please get back to me."

Another Johnson went into great detail about her family tree, and even named some attendants at her father's funeral. "I'm very proud of you, even though I haven't met you yet," she said. "I'm telling everyone I know to watch The Closer, because my cousin is featured on the show."

The phone calls and letters were overwhelming, said Holly Wasson, TNT's marketing director.

"Some people were a bit confused," she said. "A lot of people wrote back and gave us their family histories."

The idea for the campaign came out of a 15-person brainstorming session at the TNT headquarters. Marketers knew they wanted to endear potential viewers to Kyra Sedgwick's tough-gal Southern belle character, but didn't know how.

"We know that family reunions are big this time of year, especially in the South," Wasson said. "We thought, 'She's so busy, she'd be a relative who couldn't make it. Wouldn't it be fun to find as many Johnsons as we can and send them this letter explaining why she can't make it?' "

* * *

The marketing team constructed a plan to make the letter sound like one of those overly personal updates that people often mail out during the holidays. They had James Duff, the series creator and executive producer, write the letter. They printed it on cheap-looking printer paper.

"It wasn't a very expensive mailing to do, compared to the traditional media we buy," Wasson said.

But it may have been more effective than traditional marketing media. Viewership spiked during the June 12 season premiere, no doubt from all the Johnsons tuning in. (The show airs at 9 p.m. Mondays.) TNT mailed the Brenda letter to 300,000 households spread over 30 large markets. The idea was to reach a million Johnsons, Wasson said, since there are three or four per household. And more would hear of the campaign through word-of-mouth . . . or news articles.

The concept is called viral marketing, said Jim Poh of Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami. That's the rule-breaking ad agency that brought us the Burger King Web cam view of the guy in a chicken suit who took orders from computer users (subservientchicken.com). TNT's stab at this type of buzz campaigning sounded clever to him.

"You were drawn in and compelled to find out more about it," Poh said in an e-mail. "You doubtlessly asked other relatives or friends named Johnson if they received the letter as well, and if they knew anything about it."

And then I spread the word to about 1,000,000 of my reader friends.

Wasson said TNT will likely try this kind of marketing with other series or movies, since the Brenda Leigh letter was such a hit.

And if the concept spreads? Then let this be a warning to all who receive letters from a long lost relative:

If your name is Soprano, be very, very wary.

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com.