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Comcast phones E.T. for a commercial: Can the alien help the mothership’s brand?

Comcast's new campaign is a sort-of sequel to the sci-fi film, reuniting E.T. with the same actor who played Elliott in the 1982 blockbuster.

A still image from Comcast's new commercial featuring E.T. and Henry Thomas, the actor who played Elliott in the 1982 blockbuster.
A still image from Comcast's new commercial featuring E.T. and Henry Thomas, the actor who played Elliott in the 1982 blockbuster.Read moreComcast (custom credit)

E.T., the iconic movie alien, has traveled millions of light-years back to Earth for the first time in almost four decades.

The mission? Help Comcast sell high-speed internet.

The Philadelphia company has released a four-minute commercial that’s a sort-of sequel to the sci-fi film, reuniting the gentle alien with Henry Thomas, the same actor who played Elliott in the 1982 blockbuster, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The holiday-themed ad re-creates scenes from the original movie, such as the memorable bike ride through the sky. It also includes some subtle product placement: Elliott speaks into an Xfinity Voice remote.

The media conglomerate is throwing a lot behind the campaign, leveraging its broad array of assets to promote the mothership. From airing the ad on NBC during Thanksgiving to giving away E.T. goodies at Xfinity stores, Comcast is trying to use its beloved Universal Pictures character for commercial purposes without angering fans. The campaign comes as Comcast bleeds hundreds of thousands of cable TV customers every quarter even as its broadband business booms.

Media and branding experts, though, gave mixed reviews. While some said the cute commercial could give consumers a rare warm feeling about a cable company this winter, others thought the ad did little to explain what Comcast the mega-corporation is all about.

“I think for young people and everything, it’s a nice story about reconnecting,” said New York-based brand man Alan Siegel, who counts Comcast among a long list of current and former clients that includes Mastercard, Dell, and the National Basketball Association. “But it didn’t really connect to Comcast.”

The commercial, which airs until Jan. 5, has E.T. return to Earth to see a grown-up Elliott, who now has a family. The alien sleds in the snow with Elliott’s kids and stuffs its face with a cupcake covered in Reese’s Pieces. While hanging on the couch, Elliott picks a holiday movie through Xfinity’s X1 platform. Earlier, E.T. fiddles with a tablet, showing the Xfinity logo on the screen, as Elliott tells him that “a lot’s changed since you were here.” A graphic tells viewers to “Reconnect for the holidays.”

Comcast declined to say how much it spent on the campaign.

Fans on social media have largely praised the ad, though some have criticized Comcast for bringing back E.T. to peddle TV and broadband service.

Steven Spielberg, who directed E.T., was consulted and signed off on the idea, according to Comcast. (Spielberg helped produce the Universal Sphere film inside the Comcast Technology Center.)

“The audience is going to get everything they want out of a sequel without the messy bits that could destroy the beauty of the original and the special place it has in people’s minds and hearts. It’s really a win-win," Thomas, the actor, said in a statement released by Comcast.

Comcast is likely targeting younger Generation Xers and older millennials with nostalgia, said David Tucker, head of strategy at Swellshark, a New York media buying company. Younger consumers make up a large share of those ditching cable for streaming services.

“Americans hate cable companies,” added Tucker, who called the commercial a good ad. “I think something like this is probably geared toward raising brand favorability.”

Comcast has rallied many of its subsidiaries behind the campaign. A shorter version of the ad aired during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC. The full version was featured on SYFY, a Comcast owned-cable channel that played the original movie on Thanksgiving too. Xfinity retail stores are giving away E.T. coloring books and candy.

In Philadelphia, an E.T.-themed photo opportunity is available at the Comcast Technology Center, and the Four Seasons hotel will give kids E.T. themed toys. In Europe, a version of the ad features Sky products.

For all that effort, though, the campaign fails to explain what Comcast is, what it stands for, and what it brings to its family of companies, said Siegel, who said he helped create the Xfinity brand for Comcast.

“I don’t know if it connects back to Comcast or helps people understand,” Siegel said of the campaign. “I mean, it’s one g--d--- movie, you know?”