Sixth Sense

Perhaps the most intriguing marketing story of the year comes in the form of a dancing, old (at least he looks old), bald man with oversized glasses wearing a black tuxedo. He’s Mr. Six, and while his true identity may be a mystery, his ability to capture the imagination certainly isn’t.

Debbie Nauser says it’s way too early to even think about quantifying the bottom-line impact of Six Flags’ new branding icon, a mysterious dancing sensation known only as Mr. Six. The character was introduced only a few months ago, she explained, and his influence on attendance and revenues cannot yet be gauged at parks that opened seven days a week on Memorial Day.

But if success can be measured in press clippings, appearances on network talk shows, sales of bobblehead dolls, look-alike contests, and home videos featuring 9-year-olds emulating their new hero, then Mr. Six, a character created by the ad agency Doner/Detroit, is an unqualified hit, said Nauser, vice president of public relations for Oklahoma-based Six Flags.

And she has another early measuring stick — the amount of her time spent answering reporters’ questions about who this guy is, what his message is, and what it all means for the corporation. "It seems as if that’s all I’ve been doing,"she said, adding quickly that she is certainly not complaining. "He is generating press that we could not have imagined, and that’s great for Six Flags."The success of the character and the promotional materials that involve him has been attributed to a number of factors, including Mr. Six’s ability to stir the imagination with his dancing routines, done to the strains of the Vengaboys’ "We Like to Party."But there’s also his clear message about the need for overworked people to get out and have some fun, and especially that all-important element of mystery.

Indeed, while no one seems to care who plays Ronald McDonald or who wears the Mickey Mouse costume, there is widespread conjecture about who is behind the man in the tux. The Internet has been alive with theories about who is behind the mask — guesses range from Martin Short to Paris Hilton — but the corporation has been reluctant, and apparently wise, to dance around those inquiries, no pun intended.

"He is Mr. Six,"said Nauser, using phrases that appear carefully scripted. "He’s the spirit of Six Flags; he’s our official ambassador of fun who shows the general public and, hopefully, our guests the fun and excitement they can enjoy at a Six Flags theme park. And he beckons them to join in a day of fun."Yeah, but who is he? And are we talking about a he?

"He is … Mr. Six. He’s the spirit of Six Flags; he’s our official ambassador of fun who shows the general public…"That’s all anyone, including David Letterman and the team at Good Morning America, is going to get. And that’s enough, said Nauser, who spoke with BusinessWest this month about the character, how he came to be, and what he means to the corporation and individual parks like Six Flags New England.

The Ride Stuff

Nauser said Doner/Detroit, a new agency for Six Flags, was given no specific charge when it was hired to be the corporation’s full-service advertising agency. The broad assignment, however, was to create a new message that would help propel the chain, which operates 30 theme parks and water parks across the country, out of the protracted slump that has engulfed the entire amusement industry since 9/11.

Instead of just a message, the corporation has an icon, something it never had before.

"This is a break from what we’ve done previously, because we have created a brand icon,"Nauser explained. "It’s also a departure from what our competition has done, be it other theme parks or other entertainment venues that we compete with for the time and interest of our guests."The new character complements other marketing vehicles used by the chain, including Looney Toons characters — several of which greet visitors to the individual parks — and DC Comics characters whose names and /images grace many of the rides at Six Flags parks, including Superman Ride of Steel and Batman the Dark Knight.

The Mr. Six character — now used in print and television ads, as well as billboards and in-store displays — was one of several concepts created by Doner/Detroit, the largest independently owned ad agency in North America, with more than $1.5 billion in combined billings. The firm does work for companies in 30 countries, and its client list also includes Mazda, Minute Maid, Blockbuster, Dupont, and the May department stores.

Mr. Six was test-driven in several cities before a number of different audiences, Nauser explained, and it scored well across the board. "He appealed to children, he appealed to adults, he appealed to teens … everyone liked him."Despite those encouraging test scores, Mr. Six has easily surpassed even the most optimistic of projections, she said. "We expected it to be popular, but we had no how popular."For starters, television commercials he’s appeared in have soared near the top of Advertising Age’s most recent rankings of most-recognized ads (it was third in a mid-July poll, ranked just behind a KFC spot). Meanwhile, the press has attacked the story, yielding more of the so-called ’free’ press than Six Flags executives could have imagined.

Feature pieces on the character have appeared in USA Today, The Washington Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, and scores of other papers. Meanwhile, Mr. Six made an appearance on Good Morning America early in July and taped an appearance with Letterman (air date unknown) later in the month.

"The response he has gotten has simply blown us away,"said Nauser. "We’ve had calls and letters to corporate and all of our parks; we’ve been in papers across the country; when we went to do Good Morning America, there was paparazzi that came to take his picture outside the studio. It’s been incredible."Locally, Mr. Six has generated a good deal of attention, said Mary Ann Burns, marketing director for Six Flags New England in Agawam. She told BusinessWest that the park has received a number of calls and letters about the character and the ads in which he appears. At the same time, sales of merchandise bearing the character’s image — everything from T-shirts and watches to mugs and mousepads — have been strong sellers.

"He’s definitely created a buzz,"said Burns who, like Nauser, did not want to speculate on what the character has meant to attendance and revenue. "He’s given Six Flags a face."Mr. Six’s vintage bus started making personal appearances at Six Flags parks last month, and it made a week-long visit to Agawam at the end of July. Burns said the park marked the visit with dance contests and a look-alike contest that drew a number of contestants.

When asked why Mr. Six fascinates the public as he does, Nauser said the mystery surrounding his identity is part of it, as is the contrast between his appearance and his dancing ability.

But perhaps the biggest reason is his message — that people need to stop working so hard and instead find the time to enjoy themselves.

"His energy and his appetite for fun is contagious,"she said. "He makes people smile, and he gets their feet moving."But are those feet then propelling people to the chain’s theme parks? Nauser said she has no hard numbers yet, but she is confident that the campaign will translate into stronger attendance figures.

"I think Mr. Six has been very effective in showing people, young and old, that they need to put some fun in their lives,"she explained. "That’s his message — fun — and I think people are getting that message."Positive Steps

The Mr. Six campaign has done more than give Six Flags a new corporate image. It has put "We Like to Party"into the American consciousness.

Indeed, the song has been among the most-requested tunes at radio stations in several markets. Locally, Rock 102 plays it as DJs Bax and O’Brien deliver the sports in the morning. At ballparks in Atlanta and New York, the song is played after a member of the host team hits a round-tripper.

And while it remains to be seen whether Mr. Six will give Six Flags a home run at the gate, it appears that he has already become a pop-culture icon — one that can dance.

Ronald McDonald couldn’t dance.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]