Ford dealers test custom cable ads

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Hampered by imprecise ZIP code targeting and an insufficient number of set-top boxes, the promises of addressable cable TV advertising have been mostly unfulfilled since the technology arrived in the late 1990s. But a Ford Motor Co. dealers group hasn't given up.

Ford Division dealers are running a pilot in New Jersey and parts of New York with customized cable ads that deliver nine truck spots offering varied deals depending on geography, income and demographics. The marketer, working with WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, New Brunswick, N.J., has been using Visible World's Intellispot software for its four-week test covering 26 cable zones.

David Nappa, chairman of the Ford dealer association for the area, said the bulk of the spots are delivered simultaneously to suburban and rural markets in the two states for various F-150 pickup models. Higher-income areas like Princeton are seeing ads with a deal for the top-of-the-line Lariat. Ads for the base, two-wheel-drive STX model are delivered to lower-income areas with lease deals.

Only a handful of zones closer to urban areas will see an Explorer sport utility commercial, since buyers there have a lower propensity to buy pickups, said the Wayne, N.J. dealer. The ads push three offers on the F-150 models and one for the Explorer. Rural viewers will see the F-150 with hay bales in the bed; bicycles are seen in the bed in one suburban version.

Mr. Nappa said pickup truck sales will be compared to those of a control group in the adjoining dealer ad group covering Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut. That group is running a single F-150 TV commercial.

aiming for a record

The goal is to sell more F-150s in the region as Ford aims to break its all-time record for the pickup set in 1997, he said. The F-150 is Ford Motor's best-selling model and the nation's perennial top seller, car or truck. A secondary goal is to test the ad technology to track which messages worked best.

New York Interconnect, a cable sales partnership between Comcast and Cablevision, is distributing the customized ads. Ed Renicker, senior VP-general manager of Interconnect, declined to reveal the cost, but said the deal is aimed at capturing more billings from longstanding client Ford, rather than premium rates. Population in each zone can vary from 20,000 to 250,000 people.

Ford can change deals for any zone without the time and cost of re-editing, said Claudio Marcus, exec VP of Visible World. He added that his company processed campaigns for 35 advertisers this year-nearly half of them automakers. "Most are dabbling using existing commercials," he said.

Advertisers have, in fact, been dabbling with addressable cable advertising since 1998, but there's little data on their findings. The results "were interesting but inconclusive" for a 2001 test in Aurora, Colo., on 42,000 digital set-top boxes via AT&T Broadband and ACTV's SpotOn software, said Tim Hanlon, senior VP-director of emerging contacts at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, Chicago. "We didn't learn that much" for advertisers that included General Motors Corp. and Coca-Cola Co., he said, adding that the test was complicated by ownership changes on both the cable TV and tech sides.

The method of delivering by ZIP code clusters isn't the most sophisticated way to deliver customized ads. The second-generation addressable advertising will be more attractive because it will provide greater demarcations via full nine-digit ZIP codes. "A good number of our advertisers are interested when it's more sophisticated than it is today," Mr. Hanlon added.

Even Mr. Marcus said "addressable TV isn't here today." But he added that it will be when digital set-top box penetration increases from roughly 35% today to more than 70%, which is predicted by 2006.

Stay tuned.

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