Star Response, a service offered by Paragon Cable in San Antonio, lets consumers request more information by pushing buttons on their remote control when they see a star symbol during a commercial.
The system is decidedly low-tech, using existing set-top boxes and remotes. But it does generate response, and can be used by 100,000 subscribers.
So far, only a few advertisers have used Star Response-a women's clothing store, a realty company, an indoor children's playground, for example-but Paragon is out to change that.
KBL-TV, Paragon's ad sales arm, last month launched a six-week branding campaign for Star Response, designed to attract interest from both consumers and potential advertisers.
Three advertisers-Jungle Jim's, Clothestime and U.S. Long Distance-are featured in 30-second spots, inviting subscribers to order coupons. Approximately 250 spots run each week on 16 networks, including MTV: Music Television, Cable News Network, USA Network and ESPN.
After three weeks, Star Response has generated 2,053 requests for coupons: 910 for Clothestime, 542 for Jungle Jim's and 601 for U.S. Long Distance.
"People have responded to the commercials, but now they have to respond again and actually use the coupon," said Dan Corrigan, director of advertising for Jungle Jim's, a children's indoor play facility.
KBL-TV executives admit Star Response is low-level interactivity. The spots open with the Star Response logo and close with the branding slogan "Value at the touch of the star," with room in the middle for an advertiser's message. Consumers press a two-digit number shown during the commercial, followed by the star button on their remote control, to request more information or coupons.
"It's essentially a television commercial, but the call to action is a call to push a button on the remote," said Bill Carleton, corporate manager of Star Response.
Subscribers who use Star Response pay a few dollars extra per month for a special set-top box and remote to get pay-per-view programming and premium channels. The 158,000 subscribers without the special remotes can still respond by phone.
Clothestime, a women's retail clothing chain headquartered in Anaheim, Calif., has already enjoyed success with Star Response.
"We've learned that people are extremely responsive to interactive advertising," said Lisa Van Wagner, director of advertising. "The response rate has been astounding. And women have already come into the store to use the coupons."
To allay consumer privacy concerns, KBL-TV handles coupon mailings itself.
"Our [subscribers] will not be inundated with phone calls; we'll send them only the coupons they ask for and will not turn the names over to mailing lists," Mr. Carleton said.
But Star Response and the participating advertisers understand the value of the demographic data being tracked with each transaction. Because each cable box is coded, Star Response can track exactly who is responding to what ad. This creates a database of information which is then reported to Star Response advertisers.
"We protect subscriber privacy, but by the same token, we know who called from which address and ZIP code and what they purchased," said Carl Cramer, VP-sales and marketing at KBL-TV. "The more transactions we get, the more we can track, the more valuable the information will become."
After two years of interactive experiments, KBL-TV understands the difficulties involved in motivating people to try new things.
But the incentives can't be too attractive.
When a Keller Williams realty franchise advertised with Star Response in 1992, the offers to reduce selling commissions and produce custom real estate market analyses backfired, attracting too many non-prospects.
Since then, Keller Williams has toned down its offers and is attracting better-quality responses.
KBL-TV is hoping to attract more advertiser support through the Star Response branding campaign.
Toward that end, KBL has formed a relationship with Next Century Media, an interactive advertising consultancy in New Paltz, N.Y., that will help KBL form relationships with advertisers. And KBL has purchased approximately 30,000 next-generation Zenith set-top boxes capable of generating on-screen text, which will cost a little more than the existing set-top boxes.
"Basically, an advertiser can put text right on the television screen in response to consumers pressing certain buttons on their remote," Mr. Carleton said. "They will cost a little more, because they can do a lot more."
Next on the agenda is expanding Star Response to other KBL-TV markets, which include Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Orange County, Calif., Mr. Carleton said.
"Every day we are accomplishing the goals of demonstrating the value of even low-level interactivity, but we still have a lot of highway to pave," Mr. Cramer said.