NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With her blond hair, hard-to-emulate figure and near-universal recognition by kids, Barbie has long seemed destined for TV. But getting her in millions of consumers' homes in a way in which her owner, toy-maker Mattel, can measure response is a little more challenging than one might think.
Since October 2008, Mattel has run an interactive "Barbie channel" -- first on cable systems owned by Cablevision, then later on EchoStar's satellite-based Dish Network. It's a far cry from TV-network fare. The "channel" functions more like an interactive web portal, offering kids Barbie videos on demand, as well as polls and games. There's even a means for parents to request information about the doll and products associated with her. Now, Mattel is extending its reach by launching another Barbie channel on AT&T's U-Verse video system in October.
What's taken it so long to expand, and why haven't more advertisers achieved true national reach for similar programs? "The idea, yes, is to continue to extend it, but we can only extend it as fast as technology allows," said Jeanne Hanahan, senior director-corporate media at Mattel. "Not every system or carrier has the platform that would be able to host what we want the channel to be."
Once confined to using TV as a way to blast slogans, jingles and the like at slack-jawed boob-tube watchers, advertisers now have the means to interact with those same viewers—and in the process alleviate their glassy-eyed stares and fire some of the synapses in their brains. Set-top boxes now allow for viewers to respond to what they see on their TV screens.
Marketers are intrigued by the possibilities. According to a February survey of 100 national marketers conducted by the Association for National Advertisers and Forrester Research, 75% of respondents believed interactive TV would be an effective source of lead generation. Still, in a sign that this technology is in a long infancy, only 28% planned to spend more on interactive TV ads in 2010.
The issue is that every video system has its own peculiarities, requiring advertisers to tailor their efforts to each venue they use -- making Mattel's three-platform Barbie channel an interesting feat. The Barbie promotion is set to reach 19 million people, according to Michael Bologna, director-emerging communications at WPP's Group M, which helped negotiate the placement.
Even so, the Barbie effort shows what marketers can really do with TV these days. Mattel wanted to design a place where girls between the ages of 2 and 11 could go to experience all things Barbie. Using ads placed on local cable systems -- often on kid-focused channels such as Viacom's Nickelodeon or Time Warner's Cartoon Network -- as well as banners placed on the cable system's electronic program guide, Mattel sought to push kids and their parents to watch and experience Barbie-focused videos and games.
Between September 2009 and April 2010, Mattel found girls were spending nearly 17 minutes with the channel on Cablevision, and spending over eight minutes with the channel on Dish. Mattel also garnered 17.7 million page views throughout the time period, and obtained over 69,000 leads from a section of the channel that allowed parents to request information.
At Cablevision, the Mattel channel was part of an overall package that included tune-in ads advising viewers of Barbie's presence, said David Kline, president-chief operating officer of Cablevision's Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp. When advertisers use the tactic, he said, "they're getting accountability, because we tell them how many viewers came, how many videos they were watching."
One analyst sees room for more experimentation with the technique, and believes advertisers can win a national audience -- if they can maneuver through most of the top video providers. "The top 14 operators will get you about 90% of the market," said Bruce Leichtman, president-Leichtman Research Group. "Digital is being pushed into households. So as long as there's capacity, why not?"
If only going national with interactive promotions was as easy as a snap of the fingers. The longer it takes for marketers to achieve national distribution, the more risk cable providers and others have of missing out on this wave entirely.
Group M's Mr. Bologna sees a day in the not-too-distant future when consumers connect their TVs to the web, allowing Mattel to set up a Barbie internet portal that anyone can access, no matter what their video provider may be.
"We're not relying on infrastructure of a particular operator or the capacity of a particular set-top box when we're working the worldwide web," he said.