The marketer will link to the Internet for the ongoing TV launch of its Focus small car. Consumers can register their names at focus247.com and answer multiple-choice questions to determine scenarios for the commercials.
Four different spots will air on ABC during prime time March 8, 15 and 23 and April 4. Between spots, participants are invited to log onto the Web site to vote for scenarios and submit opening lines for the next spot. Participants accumulate points for prizes by voting online.
"This is truly an interactive commercial," said Jan Klug, marketing communications manager overseeing advertising at Ford Division. "At this point in [media] convergence, we have to learn as much as we can."
J. Walter Thompson USA's Detroit office handles, creating national print, newspaper and banner ads touting "Focus Interactive TV," targeted at 21-to-29-year-olds. JWT will send info about the promotion via e-mail to nearly 50,000 prospects, whose names were collected from various Focus sponsorships or promotions, including a promotion with "Dawson's Creek" and sponsoring Ricky Martin concerts last fall.
Ford tested the interactive TV link last fall during the first round of live spots for Focus, featuring cable TV's Annabelle Gurwitch, host of "Dinner & a Movie" on TBS. In one spot, viewers were asked to vote online to decide which of two outfits she should wear in an upcoming commercial.
"Low and behold, there was this epic response from thousands of people who gave a damn," said Peter Kagan, the Stiefel & Co. director of the spots.
Within 15 minutes of the live commercial 15,000 people on the East Coast had gone online to respond, said Bruce Rooke, executive creative director at JWT, said. The West Coast votes were missed due to a technological glitch.
The Focus was launched last September in live TV commercials. But the spots were criticized for being too scripted. Both the client and JWT said the problem was that the networks and Federal Communications Commission wanted to see and approve scripts 24 hours before airtime.
After early criticisms of the spots' stiffness, Ford and its agency decided to "install bloopers to enhance the honesty of the experience," Mr. Kagan said. For example, in one spot, they purposely let the 80-foot cable connecting the camera to the satellite feed disconnect as Ms. Gurwitch drove away in the Focus. "The tricky part was a very interesting distinction we stumbled upon -- the distinction between live and spontaneous," the director said. "We could have been much more spontaneous had we not been live."
The new round of live commercials will be "spontaneously interactive, so now the spontaneity isn't framed in terms of bloopers," he added. "What we're doing has never been done before."
Online participants are asked multiple-choice questions to determine which of five unknown actors and which scene they want to see in the next spot arriving within a half-hour. Ford and JWT will let ABC and the FCC see all the possible scripts ahead of time, Mr. Rooke said. JWT plans to have a network representative on the set to approve opening lines submitted by consumers between spots on the same night.
RISK OF GLITCHES
Dick O'Connor, retired chairman of Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., said live TV commercials aren't as safe as taped because you can edit out errors when producing before airtime. Marketers doing live spots may be looking to do something different or hoping to get some publicity. "What's most important in a commercial is the advertiser getting a message across with words they want, not who picks the actor."
Mr. O'Connor doesn't expect any big move back to live TV ads.
Burt Manning, retired worldwide chairman of J. Walter Thompson Co., disagreed. He predicted others will follow Ford's path if the strategy is successful. The 15,000 online respondents to last fall's Focus ad is a fabulous response, he said.
Live TV commercials waned as video technology improved, so they virtually disappeared in the '60s, recalled Mr. Manning. Live spots aren't done because marketers don't want to take the risk of glitches.
Mr. Kagan, the Focus director, recognizes how tricky live TV spots can be to produce. While waiting to do the first live spot near New York's Wall Street last September, the crew had to make way for a 5-kilometer run. He also recounted that an "Octoberfest" spot shot outside a beer hall "full of soused yahoos" was tough because "we feared some lunatic [inside] would start screaming profanities at the top of his lungs that we couldn't edit out."