The insurer took part in a test along with Ogilvy North America, aQuantive's Atlas and Charter Communications to see if different ads could be "inserted" in video-on-demand selections watched by Charter subscribers in the St. Louis area and find out which commercial lengths and creative concepts drove consumers to respond. The ads were of the direct-response variety, said Lisa Cochrane, Allstate's VP-integrated marketing communications, and the marketer used measures such as call-center volume to determine which of the ads, ranging from 15 seconds to two minutes in length, would push viewers to get off the couch and use the telephone.
Much like a web marketer might do, Ogilvy executives monitored consumer reaction and changed the ads paired up with particular Charter VOD selections. Ogilvy found that a 15-second ad worked best, and also discovered that a creative concept that was a little more entertaining than most increased completed views of the VOD ad by 17%.
"As TV moves to digital, we have the promise of adjustable TV advertising," said Maria Mandel, senior partner-executive director of digital innovation at Ogilvy Interactive.
Playing on web strengths
The VOD test was "too small to bank on any results, but we had good directional learning," Allstate's Ms. Cochrane said, noting that short, entertaining pre-rolls had proved effective in other trials. Allstate and Ogilvy are just two on Madison Avenue scrambling to graft the interactive qualities of the computer and the give-and-take marketers have with web surfers onto the TV, once the domain of the passive couch potato. Consumers can use the "select" button on the remote much as they would the "enter" key on a computer to request a DVD for a vacation destination, sign up for a test drive at a local car dealership or watch longer pieces of video.
"We want to be there as consumers learn to interact with their entertainment on TV," said Allstate's Ms. Cochrane. "You're going to see much more of that."
Futurists have already decreed that the computer and the TV are destined to merge. So advertisers are preparing for the day when digital-cable channels devoted to particular advertisers will function in ways similar to internet portals; when ads placed strategically on interactive program guides will push viewers to visit particular channels; when consumers can respond to their TVs much like they do to their favorite blogs or social networks.
Creative concepts in commercials might also be harnessed in the near future, in attempts to prod the TV viewer to press a button rather than stare blankly at a screen. Tracey Scheppach, senior VP-video innovations director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, said media buyers already can envision taking some emerging web techniques and making them work in an interactive-TV setting. Viewers might one day be able to click on elements in the TV frame, she said, "kind of like, 'What sweater is Jennifer Aniston wearing?' You are able to mouse over it and click to it and figure that all out."
Marketers will have to proceed with caution. "You really need to do it very carefully," said Jacqueline Corbelli, chairman-CEO of BrightLine, a New York firm that specializes in interactive TV and works with clients including Unilever. "The behavior, as far as we can tell, is fundamentally different in some basic ways." Directions to interact need to be simple, and advertisers have to streamline the information they make available. "It's still TV," said Barry Frey, senior VP-advanced platform sales at Cablevision Systems Corp. "In reality, while it looks very much like the web works, the infrastructure is not as deep or as wide."
Rolling out all these concepts in widespread fashion is likely to take time. Many of them hinge not on a TV network placing an ad, but on cable and satellite operators or a DVR system such as TiVo -- third parties that make the interaction possible between viewer and marketer. Cablevision has offered stand-alone channels for Walt Disney, the U.S. Navy and Unilever, but what works on one cable system may not be as easy to build elsewhere. BrightLine has developed a speciality in knowing how to tailor marketing ideas to individual TV systems.
Cable operators "have an opportunity to collaborate and solve some of the issues" with ad agencies and others, said Scott Ferris, senior VP-emerging media at Atlas. Meantime, marketers who want to address a national audience with a uniform interactive effort will likely be pushing cable operators to come up with a consistent way to do interactive spots on a national level.