Beyond 'Buy now!'
At Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, professor Duane Varan and his staff have run more than 6,500 viewing sessions in which members from a panel of more than 3,000 people are subjected to new kinds of TV commercials -- not your standard quick hit with a reminder to a passive couch-sitter to "Buy now!" but new concepts that demand more concentration and involvement.
Statistics gleaned from "Beyond :30" could prove crucial at a time when the TV screen is quickly morphing into something not unlike a computer terminal, with viewers able to click remotes and respond to marketers' entreaties. Already, cable and broadcast networks are starting to use more intrusive, web-like "snipes," or promotions that pop up in the bottom third of the screen. Meanwhile, ad agencies are working to figure out what creative techniques will make passive TV-watchers rouse themselves from their screen-staring stupor to learn more about a sneaker, insurance policy or deodorant.
"There are some people becoming more comfortable with some things on the TV screen because they are used to seeing them on the computer screen," said David Poltrack, chief research officer of CBS, one of the project's backers. The trend offers "a lot of commercial potential, but you want to go very carefully and make sure that you don't alienate or turn off viewers."
There's no shortage of ad execs wringing their hands about the future of TV commercials; some are researching the thorny issue themselves or with smaller groups. The twist here is the collaboration across multiple agencies, marketers and media companies. Among the backers of the $1 million-a-year project are Kraft Foods, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, CBS, Walt Disney's ESPN, Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting, Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group and Omnicom Group's OMD. And since the tests are based in Australia, Mr. Varan said, the participants can run ads from other markets that likely have not been seen by panel members, who usually sit in one of six mock living rooms surrounded by hidden cameras and other gear.
"Beyond :30" has been up and running since early 2005, but participants cannot discuss its specifics without breaking a nondisclosure agreement. The project's first phase recently wrapped, but results are not likely to surface publicly until the end of an embargo period, after which Mr. Varan and his staff can publish them in academic journals.
Because the consortium has first crack at the data, however, "our clients have an advantage to know whether consumers will respond favorably or not" to dozens of ad concepts, said Helen Katz, senior VP-director of research at Starcom MediaVest Group. Involvement can grant participants a competitive step up. Technology is moving "faster than a lot of us ever predicted," said Andrew Jung, senior director of advertising and media for Kellogg. "Advertisers need to stay ahead of the game."
Marketers also believe the studies can help them understand how consumers might react to similar ads that play across websites, MP3 players, video-game consoles and mobile devices, said Terri Richardson, group product manager for Microsoft TV.
What the future might look like
Some of the tests involve video games superimposed over the ads. Others gauge how the average couch potato might react when pausing a recorded program and seeing an advertiser's logo on screen. Another effort involves news tickers -- much like those on CNBC -- that offer information while ads play.
Mr. Varan has tested commercial lengths and placements within breaks as well as how many viewings of a commercial it might take before someone clicks in response to a TV ad's invitation. In some cases, he also is monitoring eye movement, heart rate and physiological arousal as people encounter the ads. "It's a number of studies that are starting to pile up and help us form pictures of what the future will actually look like," said Barbara Singer, Kraft's director of strategic media information.
Not everything is a hit. Some experiments reveal ad formats that turn a viewer off or have no effect, said Emma Jenkins, head of digital marketing for Procter & Gamble U.K. Others show that too many elements on screen can affect brand recall. "If you throw a consumer one ball, they'll catch it. If you throw them four or five, they'll drop them all," she said.
When it comes to snaring the attention of a consumer who can click away at the touch of a button, uncertainty abounds. Even so, "Beyond :30" offers a few initial answers. The insights are "helping us shape our strategies," said Ms. Jenkins, in terms of "what sort of new ad models do we want to explore further, and which ones do we want to drop?"