By Diane Mastrull The Philadelphia Inquirer.
What do an Ivy League university, a frozen-yogurt chain, and John Cipollone, a 70-year-old grandfather not at all self-conscious about being bald, have in common?
All have embraced a whimsical trend rapidly altering the way business communicates to consumers and employees: Animation.
Walt Disney Studios has known of the appeal of hand-drawn moving figures since "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" wowed audiences in 1938. Now, in increasing numbers, businesses and institutions outside the entertainment industry are turning to animation to make an impression.
For typically cash-strapped small businesses, do-it-yourself software programs such as GoAnimate are making animation a more affordable marketing option.
Not to employ cartoons as a commerce driver is to ignore consumer behavior, said Neil Harner, director of Philadelphia University's Interactive Design & Media and Animation programs.
"People's attention spans have gotten really short," Harner said. "The more you engage them, the more they will retain."
The school is restructuring its animation program, long focused on filmmaking, to give it more of an emphasis on business and industry, he said.
For Cipollone and partner Peter McEllhenney, animation seemed a natural fit to advertise Endgame, their 18-month-old company of two employees and $100,000 in annual revenue that helps businesses raise their social-media profiles.
Endgame's promotional video features McEllhenney and Cipollone as cartoon figures. Cipollone, his likeness exaggerated with not one single hair on his dome, said humor made the message more memorable.
Which is why the University of Pennsylvania is turning to animation in expanding ways, said Benjamin Wiggins, director of Digital Learning Initiatives and Online Pedagogies for Arts & Sciences Online Learning.
Improbably, it began with calculus.
Professor Robert Ghrist combined his skills in mathematics and drawing two years ago to create the animation-laden online course "Calculus Single Variable." Ghrist appeared as himself, his monotone narration offset with colorful boxes of equations written in elegant script coming and going on the screen.
"What we learned from that is this can be an effective means of communicating complex ideas," Wiggins said.
That led to a university effort to take other online courses "to the next level," Wiggins said. "We saw animation as that tool that would allow us to do that."
The first involved a course on how to apply to U.S. universities. Aiming its message at 15- to 18-year-olds worldwide, Penn hired Newtown animator Meaghan Dunn to produce animation that would be relatable even to those for whom English is not a first language.
So as University Connection counseling specialist Erick Hyde is discussing the importance of getting to know a school before applying for enrollment, a cartoon shows a young man playing a board game with a school building, which Dunn gave arms and legs.
That animators and their art are in greater demand by businesses is recognition of metrics showing that entertaining video content keeps website visitors around longer, Dunn said.
"Companies are definitely aware of that and trying to create more of that," she said.
Besides Penn, Dunn's animation clients include Johnson & Johnson (an employee-safety training video); the Federal Emergency Management Agency (videos on earthquake safety and tsunami evacuations), and SO Fun! Frozen Yogurt in Easton (creation of its "Cup Dude" mascot and a promotional video featuring swirls of yogurt diving into containers of multicolored sprinkles).
The cost of animation can run from $1,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the level of complexity, Dunn said. Or, with GoAnimate, as little as $39 a month.
The Silicon Valley startup of 35 employees was founded in 2007 to make animated video a simple drag-and-drop experience that doesn't require knowing how to draw, said chief operating officer Gary Lipkowitz.
Citing all the noise in the online world, Lipkowitz said small businesses in particular have a challenge getting noticed.
"Video is the answer," he said, with animation a cost-effective way to represent diversity, for example, without employing a spectrum of actors.
At Endgame, which used GoAnimate to create its own promotional video, the founders recommend animation marketing to clients where appropriate, McEllhenney said.
He added in an email: "Grief counselor = not appropriate."