High time for ads to move to high def

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Imagine watching the Super Bowl this year in high definition on your new big-screen plasma TV. Watch the quarterback's eyes dart from side to side as he calls a play in Dolby surround sound. Watch nervous defensive ends drip sweat as they wait for the call. Cut to commercial, and suddenly the screen shrinks from a wide screen to a small squared-off box with a flat and dull-looking product inside it.

Now imagine you're the brand manager of that product. Imagine picking up the phone and calling your advertising agency to query, "I paid $2.4 million for that?"

It's a hypothetical situation, but one that HDTV industry insiders believe is likely. The Feb. 6 Super Bowl, the third one shown in high definition, could be the tipping point for the demand of HDTV commercials, they said. Other than movie trailers, only one commercial last year was shown in high definition: a Chevrolet ad. And it was only shot in HD because it was also used as a cinema ad.

"If you're willing to spend $2.4 million on a Super Bowl Spot, at least convert it to high definition, that's what we're recommending to our clients," said Michael Bologna, director-emerging communications, WPP Group's Mediaedge:CIA. "The cost is a rounding error compared to the media buy." It adds an extra 10% to 15% to the price to convert 35 mm film to HD when making a commercial, although the price goes up, and the quality goes down, when attempting to convert standard video to HD.

Karl Meisenbach, director-advertising, HDTV, a network of HD channels funded by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, said marketers will likely be the driving force in HD commercial adoption. As he sees it, they'll ask for it. In fact, Anheuser-Busch, one of HDTV's biggest advertisers, came on board when a Budweiser brand manager got HDTV at home and saw Coors Light commercials and sponsorships in HD, next to Budweiser commercials in standard definition. He called his ad agency.

early plays

Others advertisers are joining the move to HD. Discovery HD counts Circuit City, Toyota Motor Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., New Line Cinemas, Voom, Hitachi and Pioneer among its advertisers. iNDemand Network, which runs INHD, a network of HD channels, also has Samsung. Media Edge's Mr. Bologna said they just added three "major clients" for HD commercials.

While spots in HD will keep executives from being embarrassed during the Super Bowl, another reason to do it is to stay ahead of consumers. iNDemand Network did a survey of current HDTV viewers who have seen commercials in high definition and found that ads matter, and can even be a brand differentiator. In the September survey, 62% said they enjoy watching commercials in HD; 51% said they pay more attention to commercials in HD; and 69% said advertisers who show commercials in HD are more cutting edge.

"At the end of 2005, the industry will look back and say high definition was a weapon to differentiate my brand and either I took advantage of it or my competitor did," said Sergei Kuharsky, senior VP-marketing, iNDemand.

Mr. Meisenbach asserts that once consumers have HD, it's all they want to watch. "At 9 p.m., our subscribers are looking at all the high-def channels first to see what's on. It's like when you got your first DVD player, you didn't watch VHS tapes anymore. Once they get it, they grumble and curse when something's not in high definition-and that includes commercials," he said.

What creative advantages HDTV may offer has been little explored so far. Because images seem almost three-dimensional, product benefits like texture or color can be highlighted. HD features surround sound, which means multiple or different sounds can emanate from different speakers at different times. A recent Gap commercial with Sarah Jessica Parker and Mary J. Blige has a chorus of back-up singers blast in through the rear speakers halfway through the spot-if you're watching in HD, that is.

affluent demographic

Craig Woerz, managing partner for Media Storm, thinks HDTV's clear, brilliant images lend themselves well to long-form ads, infotainment and content integration "Aesthetically, it's a place to put long-form," he said. "But from a media standpoint, it makes sense as well because [the audience consists of] affluent, heavy users and they are media mavens that are critical to a network's success." In fact, HDTV households have an average income over $90,000 annually.

"Now is the time to learn what creative can do in a widescreen world," Mr. Meisenbach said. "Do you shoot at a different angle, do you focus on different things? I don't know, I'm not a creative. ... But this is the time to be doing it and getting feedback and making your mistakes, while the audience is still not that big."

Just how big an audience is still a bit unclear. The number of HDTV sets installed range from 12 million to 15 million, but not all are watching HD programming because not every set is paired with an HD tuner box or satellite antenna. Research group Ipsos-Insight surveyed consumers to determine if they had HDTV, and 15% said yes. But Senior VP Lynne Bartos thinks that number is "very inflated" by people confused about what HD is. Even the HD advocates put the number at a much more sedate 10% of TV viewers; Ms. Bartos estimates closer to 5%. Mr. Bologna said he estimates about 3 million households watch HDTV.

The road to HD adoption still has some hurdles. Consumers have to buy HD sets, and also connect to some sort of digital HD signal. It can be confusing, as well as expensive. However, the average price of an HD set is coming down and is expected to drop even more quickly. Wal-mart has already said its goal is to be the No. 1 seller of HDTV sets in 2005. Another problem is the expense for broadcasters who get no additional revenue from HD advertisers to send signals in high definition. So programming is still advancing slowly, although most prime time shows, many sporting events and specialty movie channels are already available in HD.

The lack of critical mass is likely the reason there isn't more of a buzz on Madison Avenue. "In order to wake up the ad community, you need penetration," Mr. Bologna said. While the HD networks and industry insiders look to this Super Bowl for a turning point, the Joe Average consumer still lags in HD viewing.

Ms. Bartos at Ipsos-Insight said while awareness is on the rise with 89% of survey respondents saying they are aware of HDTV (up from 74% in 2002), purchase intent is fairly flat with about 13% very or somewhat likely to buy in the near-term versus 15% last year.

"I just don't think the 2004 selling season will be the year," she said. "I'm leaning more toward next year."

Media buyers are encouraging clients to investigate high-definition for 2005. Bob Flood, exec VP-director national electronic media at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia, said he has started recommending it for next year to his clients, which include BMW, but "It's still in its nascent stage."

Yet no matter when HD hits the mainstream, most agree on its importance. Ira Berger, director-national broadcasting for Richards Group, echoing others said, "The analogy we look at is it will be similar to the change from black-and-white to color. ... It's revolutionary for broadcasting."

contributing: kris oser

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