What Is An Ad In The Interactive Future?

Stephen Wallmark, dealer-services manager at BMW of North America Inc., has a dream: Car buyers, from the comfort of home, size up cars on the screens of their computers or TVs. Don't like black? Try green. How about a convertible? Then, with a click of the mouse, the serious shopper requests an appointment for a test drive. Later, the dealer brings a car over and, if the buyer is ready, goes on-line with a laptop PC to check inventory, plot leasing vs. financing, and even fill out the paperwork. This dream could come true soon, says Wallmark. With on-line services improving and interactive TV unfolding, it could be common to do car shopping from the couch "well before the year 2000," he says.

Just as digital convergence is challenging the worlds of entertainment and media to come up with new interactive "content," the Information Superhighway is putting marketing and advertising to the test. Many marketers already assume that the plain old 30-second spot won't cut it. But what will? What's an ad supposed to do in the interactive future? As the old ways of doing business give way to the digital swirl, "things can get pretty hairy," says Vincent Grosso, AT&T project director for interactive television. How hairy? Say a jeans supplier wants to advertise in a retailer's "store" in the interactive mall on TV. Who does the jeansmaker buy the ad from--the retailer? Or the interactive-TV network? "We've never been faced with those kinds of issues," says Grosso.

Then there are the ads themselves. How will they compete with interactive content? Grosso envisions carmakers creating games to let viewers race against the advertiser's car, while the sponsor points out his model's advantages--in steering, for example. Virtual "travel safaris" with pulldown advertising menus might work for airlines, hotels, or luggage makers.

The scramble for ideas has opened the door for all sorts of new marketing approaches. Pacific Data Images in Sunnyvale, Calif., for example, has been hired to whip up the animation for an electronic version of Warner Bros. stores for tests of Time Warner Inc.'s "full-service network" in Orlando. To make TV shopping entertaining, not just convenient, PDI animators are turning Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil into store guides, showing off clothing, toys, jewelry, and souvenirs.

"RAZZLE-DAZZLE." But digital glitz isn't all there is. The true power of interactivity may lie in information, not entertainment. Paula George Tompkins, chief executive officer of The SoftAd Group, a Mill Valley (Calif.) creator of interactive marketing materials, says the most successful efforts aren't "full-motion video and razzle-dazzle ads." They're information-laden programs that help buyers make complex decisions such as choosing a car or an industrial-products supplier. SoftAd clients include Ford, Abbott Labs, and the glass manufacturer PPG Industries. Similarly, Robert M. Shapiro, senior vice-president for commercial marketing at Prodigy Services Co., says his big advertisers are financial services, auto makers, and computer hardware and software companies.

Many products may never need this information-age marketing approach and the interactive "relationship" that goes with it. "There's a relatively small number of products and services that people really want to have a relationship with," says Don E. Schultz, professor of integrated marketing at Northwestern University. "I don't particularly want to have a relationship with a plastic-garbage-bag manufacturer." That should be a relief for producers of conventional advertising--and perhaps for consumers, too.

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