Ford Motor Co. of Canada was the sole sponsor of the interactive telecast of the Lillehammer Olympics in Quebec in February. It was the second time Ford had tested interactive advertising using Videoway technology, which allows viewers to select one of four commercials and respond to on-screen messages.
Ford also will advertise on a next-genera- tion interactive TV system, launching in 34,000 homes in northern Quebec next year.
The tests serve a threefold purpose: to learn new ways to reach prospects; to drive awareness of Ford products; and to associate Ford with new technology in the minds of car buyers.
"What we think will happen with TV is there's going to be a great deal of fragmentation," said Ron Dodds, advertising manager for Ford Canada. "So you're not necessarily going to be able to get to all the places you want to get to with the resources that are available" now.
Ford Canada isn't going it alone, however. Its agency, Young & Rubicam, Toronto, has lobbied strongly to keep interactive TV top of mind with the client. And Ford is listening.
"I wanted to ensure that Ford gained recognition as a major [Olympics] sponsor," said Bruce Neve, associate media director at Y&R. "We thought that adding the interactive overlay would uniquely associate Ford with the Olympics, and also with new technology."
But the strategy may not have worked as well as Ford would have liked: A survey found that only 25% of viewers watched the commercials interactively.
Ford used its Olympics telecast sponsorship to launch the Windstar minivan, the new Aspire small car and the redesigned Mustang.
As exclusive interactive sponsor of the Quebec telecast, Ford was able to run up to seven interactive commercials per evening. Viewers with Videoway cable boxes could use their remote control to pick one of four commercials for different Ford vehicles.
After viewing the commercial, consumers could use their remote to answer a question flashed on the screen. Viewers who answered correctly could call in to receive a commemorative Ford/Lillehammer Olympics sweatshirt.
Consumers also could use their remote to see a videotex overlay on the TV screen that provided more information about Ford cars and a telephone number to set up a test drive.
Videoway has been available in Quebec since 1989. For about $6 a month on top of the regular cable bill, 220,000 subscribers can watch interactive sports, news and game show programming as well as receive several channels of videotex services including sports statistics, weather, classified ads and videogames.
But advertising on Videoway isn't always easy. Ad sales are handled by TVA, a broadcast network owned by Videoway's parent, Groupe Videotron. Those who have worked with the network say it hasn't gone out of its way to woo potential interactive advertisers, choosing instead to conduct limited tests.
"You pretty well have to take initiative yourself," Mr. Neve said. "I guess from a sales perspective, it's easier to sell a million dollars worth of regular programming .*.*. It's still a hard sell in terms of finding someone willing to spend the additional money" to advertise interactively.
Although TVA initially approached Ford about the interactive sponsorship last October, a deal wasn't signed until late January.
TVA originally asked a 25% premium over the regular Olympics sponsorship, Mr. Neve said. By January, the premium was down to 10%, a more palatable figure for Ford, which wouldn't divulge what it paid. But that afforded little time for the automaker to prepare recall tools and other interactive elements to gauge consumer response.
"There is difficulty" finding advertisers willing to use the TVA interactive system, said Robert Lord, senior marketing consultant at TVA. "It's a tougher selling job."
Research conducted on the interactive Olympics shows a mixed bag for Ford.
Despite Videoway's sizable penetration in the Quebec market, a February telephone survey of 593 TVA viewers by Montreal research company CROP found that only 43% watched the Olympics in interactive mode.
And only 25% of the viewers who watched the Olympics interactively said they used their remote to choose ads during commercial breaks.
"I guess we can be very judgmental, and we can walk away and say [the results are] really poor," said Ford's Mr. Dodds. "But I think you're dealing with technology, and you're dealing with an ... audience that in some cases is not going to be that interested in playing with their TV."
There is a silver lining: Of those who watched the Olympics interactively, more could name Ford as an Olympic sponsor than any other sponsor. Some 36% named Ford, compared with 25% for Coca-Cola Co. and 24% for McDonald's Corp., sponsors that didn't run interactive spots.
"The interactivity and the choosing the commercial and playing the contest had quite a big impact," Mr. Neve said. "Hopefully it had a similar impact in terms of increasing awareness and communication of the new products we were advertising."
But Mr. Neve admits Ford may not be able to fully measure the effect of its interactive spots.
"We picked up the interactive sponsorship fairly late in the game," he said. "We picked it up for a fairly good price, [but] we'd like to have had more measurement things in place."
Still, Ford and Y&R are hot on interactive media in Canada.
Both will be major participants in the two-way interactive TV system planned to start next year in 34,000 homes in Chicoutimi, Quebec. The system, called UBI-universal bidirectional interactivity-will be funded by a consortium including Videotron, Hearst Corp. and several Canadian organizations.
"It's a unique approach to find out what people are all about," said Mr. Dodds of Ford's Videoway experience. "And I know in the final analysis that the advertising that these people selected was certainly curved to what their interests were. So you get the right message in the right household."