Talk about a Jedi mind trick—Madison Avenue wants in on Star Wars' "force."
For years, giving quasi-holiday status to May 4 was a sort of inside joke for sci-fi types, a play on the famous phrase "May the force be with you." Fans dressed up, got together for movie marathons and horsed around with homemade light sabers. But now, marketers have begun appropriating Star Wars Day with giveaways, sales and other promotions. Has this viral phenomenon gone to the Dark Side?
Clothing store Hot Topic is debuting a new line of Star Wars-themed tops and dresses on its website and giving away 500 Star Wars cinch sacks to online customers, and toy company Hasbro is discounting "Star Wars" items by 20 percent on its site tomorrow. (Shoppers have to enter the coupon code SWFANDAY at checkout.)
Gaming retailer Gamestop is running a sweepstakes giving away a seven-foot Sith Lord statue, "Star Wars"-themed Xbox 360, toy light saber and flash drives.
(Read More: Disney Earnings Beat; 'Star Wars' Reboot Planned)
Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios and Legoland Florida are both holding special events for visitors to their respective parks. Disney visitors can go to a "Jedi Training Academy" and a "Star Wars"-themed dance party. Legoland visitors can participate in a scavenger hunt or a contest building Yoda out of Legos.
"For marketers, I'd say this was a great idea," said Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "Anytime marketers can play into an existing fan base ... we're going to be much more likely to purchase."
But corporations who want to capitalize on Star Wars Day will have to tread carefully to avoid alienating a subculture that is fiercely protective of the franchise.
"If it helps that community engage with the experience better, they'll welcome it," Berger said. "The one danger is people don't like feeling like they're being marketed to."
The companies using the "force" this year recognize that Star Wars Day's unofficial status and cult following play into its appeal. "This really is a fan holiday," a Hasbro spokesperson said.
Berger also says fans may appreciate the acknowledgment. "It does make it seem like this event is a little bit bigger ... than just me and my friends. It can be good in that it legitimizes the movement."
Could Star Wars Day ever become too commercial for fans? "Feeling like it's becoming popularized may lead to a pushback," Berger said. "I don't think we've gotten there yet."
It could take Yoda-like wisdom to strike the right tone with fans, so it probably helps if the company has a "Star Wars"-friendly culture already.
"For our employees at our headquarters, we've actually got a 501st stormtrooper group coming into our office [today]," Gamestop spokeswoman Jackie Smith said via email.
"We're doing 'Star Wars' trivia, pictures with Han Solo and on our cafeteria menu for today—Boba Fett-ucine, R2D Tuna Sandwiches, and Crazy Catina Chili. Yeah, we're into it."
—By NBC News Contributor Martha C. White
Questions? Comments? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.