Leading up to the season premiere of Dancing With the Stars, ABC unleashed a marketing tactic that was part guerrilla, part dance marathon. To get as many people as possible dancing in as many cities as possible, a team of 14 professional dancers pranced across the country, stopping at commuter hubs such as subway stops and train depots to hand out mini disco balls (featuring the show’s logo) and flyers touting this season’s contestants. “In each market we entered, we tried to pop up in traffic-heavy locales—the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the aquarium in Atlanta,” said ABC vice president of advertising and marketing Darren Schillace, who worked with Lead Dog Marketing’s Dan Mannix to plan the 15-day tour at the beginning of March.
The focal point of each pit stop was a three-hour dance competition with a live band, held at city landmarks (Union Station in Washington, Madison Square Garden in New York), where passersby on their lunch breaks could get free tango or fox-trot lessons and enter the contest. Winners in each city received local prizes, such as Rangers tickets in New York, and were entered in a national competition; the grand prize was a trip to Los Angeles to be in the Dancing With the Stars studio audience.
Schillace and Mannix started planning the tour just six weeks before its launch date. (Lead Dog typically prepares for four to six months for tours of this size.) Topping the to-do list: mapping out the route, securing permits for the competition locales, auditioning dancers and band members, hiring a photographer and a videographer to document the trip, booking hotel rooms, and reaching out to local media.
Beyond logistics, Schillace wanted the tour to be flexible. “We wanted to be able to react to each market,” he said. “If one event happened to be very well attended, we wanted to be able to stay a bit longer, which is what we did in Philadelphia.” Other spontaneous changes included an unplanned stop in New Orleans, where the group paraded through the French Quarter, and stopping at the University of North Texas, whose basketball team had just landed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years. “They were calling the game the Big Dance, so clearly there was a tie-in there,” Schillace said. “Our stars dancing with the team mascot got local media pickups.”
The dancers—seven leotard-clad women and seven men in gold-star costumes—and the six-person band traveled in a full-size tour bus that Rockstar Limo in Newport, Rhode Island, had wrapped with Dancing With the Stars ad graphics. “It was basically a traveling billboard,” Schillace said. The tour’s goal was, of course, to drive viewers to the show’s March 19 premiere. Whether Americans tuned in because they wanted to watch Heather Mills dance with a prosthetic limb or because they had danced with stars in their own market will never be known, but the show had its best-ever premiere audience, with 21.8 million viewers.