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Comdex: Chip puppets and other buffoonery's Michael Kanellos wanders the show floor, wondering what cheerleaders or huge puppets have to do with the price of computers in Vegas.

This week, the fate of National Semiconductor will be in the hands of a puppet.

To be exact, the company's marketing effort is in the hands of James Sloan, a walk-on actor and puppeteer who is the animating spirit behind Chip, a 7-foot-high, animatronic puppet that resembles a microchip. Chip, who sits in the lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center, tries to persuade Comdex wanderers to visit the booth for Cyrix, the microprocessor division of National. Sloan, for four hours a day during Comdex, is the voice and arms of Chip.

"Did you see Sesame Street Live?" he said. "I was the voice-over for Bert."

Sloan's main job is to guide computer dealers, part buyers, and wholesalers to Club Cyrix, a mock nightclub display, complete with actors and dancers, in the north end of the convention center. Music plays. Rubber doo-dads are given out. Deals are cut. Comedian Bob Sarlatte was going to attend as a glad-hander for National as part of the extravaganza, but he wanted $5,000 a day.

Trade show buffoonery is big business. Billions are spent annually, according to various estimates, on convention show displays. And, although stuffing a grown man into a foam outfit would seem to have little to do with computers, canned meats, or bazooka sales, no convention would be complete without the kind of gung-ho enthusiasm engendered by Americans in search of a free T-shirt.

"A giveaway," says Rich Allen, principal at Townsend Street Productions, the production studio behind National's display, "has got to be able to make people bark like a dog."

Marketing gone wild
Like many things in life, the value of a trade show production can only be judged in retrospect. Most rarely rate above forgettable: a porch swing made of fiber optic cables, cavemen from marketing re-enacting 2001: a Motherboard Odyssey, Hooters waitresses handing out disks. Those that succeed, however, can launch the company into the big leagues. Are sales consummated over a free tape measure? Actually, yes.

Cyrix itself is a perfect example. Last year, Softbank, the sponsor of the show, told National that the booth the company contracted for wasn't available. To avoid a conflict, Softbank agreed to let Cyrix erect its football-themed booth in the center lobby.

"It was the hit of the show," said Steve Tobak, vice president of sales and marketing, who said the display lead to several leads. "The bottom line is that it's an opportunity to get in front of every reseller in the country."

The experience last year has lead Cyrix to bet big time on Comdex. National will invest approximately $1 million into a 5,000-square-foot floor display and meeting rooms, said Tobak, not counting travel and entertainment expenses, and competitors Intel and AMD, by contrast, will only have meeting rooms, no booths.

Bungee jumping
Mike Rosenfelt, a marketing executive at Micron Electronics and a former employee of Power Computing, can vouch for the value of a catchy theme. In August 1996, Power set up a 250-foot bungee tower at MacWorld Boston to herald the release of their new product, the PowerTower. The first jump was given to an executive at Lockheed-Martin. He ordered 9000 Power machines shortly afterward.

Power then followed up with a commando theme at MacWorld in San Francisco. At the time, the Mac platform was in serious decline. The company latched onto the idea of promoting chairman Steve Kahng as the visionary leader of a revolutionary cadre. Cards with Steve's face and communist-like expressions--"Fight the Power with Power," "We will win through Hand-to-Hand Combat," and the never publicly released, "I Am Not Wearing Any Pants,"--were printed. Steve Kahng votive candles were made.

Kahng fever grew to a point where a Power employee burned an image of Steve into a tortilla and auctioned it off.

Rosenfelt knew he had succeeded when he overhead two women talking about a 50-foot banner graced with Kahng's face. "I didn't know Steve Jobs was Asian," one said. Power eventually went under, but it certainly didn't lack for panache.

"How many times do you want to see the 49er cheerleaders in a booth, and what do they have to do with a scanner," Rosenfelt said rhetorically.

So what makes a good booth? Money typically plays a large part, said Lauren Schechtman, co-principal at Townsend. A good booth might take three months to prepare and lots of specialized talent. Actors, she pointed out, get $666 per day, not including their expenses or the 10 percent fee for the agency.

The search for talent
"And typically, if you want to get someone good you have to pay more," added Ford. Schechtman had to go through two casting calls and contacts in a professional agency before finding Sloan to play Chip. An early candidate was good with the puppet, but wasn't glib. Another was too big to fit in the booth.

Style, of course, is another big part. A few years back, every company did a take-off on the famous Robert Palmer video with women with shellacked hair. Last year, another company did a Santa Claus skit that got two thumbs down. Women tend to be a common, but derided, booth prop. But it works, said Ford. Last year, Iomega featured young women scrambling around scaffolding. Weird as it sounds, it was aesthetic.

Minor and/or has-been celebrities also tend to draw big crowds, but they come with their own problems, she said. One, they are kind of expensive. Bob Sarlatte wanted $5,000 a day, so imagine what the man who played Boss Hog on The Dukes of Hazzard or the NASA Space Chimps.

Second, what if they are too out of date? Will having Gallagher squishing water melons in a booth, which IBM did once, project the image that your company is on the cutting edge?

The tech industry in any event, has no particular reason to be overly embarrassed.

"Doctors are really into the giveaways," said Schechtman.