If TV ads are the media equivalent of mosquitoes, then the digital video recorder (DVR) is a bug zapper on steroids. Rather than merely wringing their hands, however, ad agencies are now experimenting with the technology itself to see if DVRs can draw consumers into a deeper involvement with ads.
The latest: Next month, Sony Corp. (SNE ) will begin running ads for its Bravia flat-panel TVs that let viewers, if they have TiVo, choose among different endings whether they're watching live TV or a recorded program. Five seconds into the commercial, two on-screen choices appear -- one aimed at men and one at women. A menu of "male" endings revolves around picture quality and size, and the "female" options focus on the TV's aesthetics. Conventional ads may be under fire, says Brad Brinegar, CEO of agency McKinney & Silver LLC in Durham, N.C., which is creating the Bravia campaign, but smart use of interactive TV could bring about an advertising renaissance. "If you provide viewers with a worthwhile experience, they'll absolutely stay engaged," he says, "and if you don't, you'll die an expensive, painful death."
TiVo Inc.'s (TIVO ) system, with 4.4 million subscribers, is especially ripe for experimentation like this because its machine so far allows for more interactivity than cable. (Time Warner Cable Inc. (TWX ) now has interactive TV, and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA ) will soon unveil its version.) "Advertisers are simply trying to increase the amount of time consumers spend in their branded environment," says Davina Kent, vice-president for national sales at TiVo. Sony is even hoping that by offering 12 possible endings for its ad, viewers will be curious enough to watch them all.
That's not as implausible as it sounds. Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. ran a four-minute video on TiVo's Showcases system last fall that let viewers know that a longer-form video about the ins and outs of buying a plasma-screen or high-definition TV was available. TiVo says that average staying time for such extended content is two minutes but that most viewers who tapped into Pioneer's video, which was informational, shot in part in a retail store, and not brand-specific, watched the entire film.
ADS ON DEMAND
In May, TiVo is rolling out what may sound like the ultimate in chutzpah: ads on demand. It's not so crazy. Consumers about to spend big money on cars, travel, new kitchens, and the like have shown plenty of interest in watching video about the stuff they plan to buy. TiVo, and the cable companies following close behind, want to offer that content more conveniently and on viewers' terms. TiVo's nascent broadband link to the Net, which, among other things, connects a viewer's TiVo screen with their Yahoo! (YHOO ) homepage, is seen as just the beginning of full-blown convergence between the TV and the Internet.
Getting viewers to watch ads the old-fashioned way is plainly getting tougher. DVRs will be in 18% of households by yearend and 39% by 2010, says Nielsen Media Research. With penetration highest among the most valued high-income and educated consumers, it's no wonder that 70% of advertisers believe DVRs and video-on-demand will "reduce or destroy" the effectiveness of 30-second spots, according to an Assn. of National Advertisers survey in March.
Such attitudes led KFC Corp. (YUM ) in late February to try a new tack, a 30-second ad that contained a hidden message when viewers played the ad in slow motion on their DVR. The reward for solving the secret was a coupon for a free Buffalo Snacker sandwich. KFC's Web site drew 2.75 million page views over the week the ad ran, 40% more than usual. And it distributed more than 100,000 coupons. Still, such gimmicks could wear thin pretty quickly. "If consumers are signaling they want to skip ads that don't interest them, we're not interested in tricking them," says Maria Mandel, director of digital innovation at Ogilvy Interactive, part of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide (WPPGY ). Even the industry that dreamed up advertising inside elevators and the stalls of public restrooms knows it can sometimes go too far.
By David Kiley