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For the past few months, interactive advertising has been churning out press in quantities rivaled only by the O.J. Simpson trial. And like that trial, everyone has an opinion, but no one seems to be shedding much light on the subject.

If anything, the overexposure leads you to conclude that the whole thing is just a confusing mess. What is interactive anyway?

Is it TV? Is it online? Is it kiosks? Is it CD-ROM? Does it have something to do with the fabled (and misunderstood) information superhighway? Is it something we don't even have a word for?

Fortunately, there is a word for it. It's called "selling." (Remember that one?) Which is what we all did before we got into show business (i.e., TV). And it's what the direct mail shops have never forgotten. In fact, I believe interactive to be the perfect selling medium, the showroom of the mind. But we'll come back to this.

Without really understanding the potentials and the pitfalls, the feeling among many agencies is whatever interactive is, we'd better get into it, and right away. So you rush off and start spending money, but you don't really know where to spend and you're uneasy because you're afraid you might be throwing money away on technology that isn't going to be around tomorrow.

The problem is, no matter where you spend your technology dollars right now, that thing isn't going to be around tomorrow. What will be around is what you've learned. Which is, after all, what makes you so valuable already, right?

We're at a point in the history of interactive multimedia similar to when automobiles started arriving around the turn of the century. Then, you could buy a car, but the choices were confusing. Should you get an electric one? A Stanley steamer? A noisy, smelly gasoline-driven model? Maybe you should just stick with the horse and carriage, which you knew would never go out of style.

A far-sighted individual could have told you it didn't matter what you got. It wasn't going to last for a hundred years anyway. The point was, there were going to be automobiles of some kind, and what you needed to be doing was learning how to drive.

The same is true of interactive advertising. Right now, you need to be learning how to drive. And here are your first driving lessons for the infobahn.

The first thing you want to learn is true interactivity. Whoever first understands how to sell in an interactive medium, and starts doing it well, is going to come out on top. Small agencies have an advantage here, but big agencies can profit as well-if they listen.

Lesson #1-It ain't TV. TV is not interactive and interactive is not TV, at least in its present form. You can't get people involved in a voluntary sales process by shouting something over and over. TV commercials rely on attitude, control of the message and repetition, none of which are inherent (or necessarily even desirable) in an interactive medium. If you want

people to walk into your showroom of the mind, you have to be courteous, inviting, interesting and, above all, valuable.

McDonald's recently had an offering on America Online. This was a QuickTime movie, playable on your computer, of a commercial you'd already seen on TV. Billed as an "interactive ad," it was about as interactive as a tree stump and took half an hour to download.

Apparently, they think people will pay money to acquire poor copies of something they get for free elsewhere. Maybe they're looking for a way to prove to themselves that interactive doesn't work. If so, good start.

Lesson #2-Information is king. OK, I'm going to use the C word here: collateral. Hold your nose if you will, but take a look at a good brochure and see how much it tells you. It gives you what you want while seducing you with other benefits. If someone is really interested in a product, they want information about it.

Lesson #3-It's all about selling. Direct mail is an excellent model here. The whole premise of direct mail is selling by informing and seducing.

Good direct mail leads you along, gets you involved, makes you an offer, persuades you to get out your credit card. It's not about cleverness, fashion or production values. There are even attempts at rudimentary interactivity, as in getting you to paste a stamp to a card or check a special box on a business reply card for an extra bonus.

Lesson #4-Writing is key. If you're going into an informational medium, you're going to have to use words to get your message across. Use graphics and copy the way you would in a good print ad. Attract attention with graphics, focus the message with the headline, sell in the copy.

Lesson #5-Give up control. The key to the success of the automobile was individual empowerment: People could go where they wanted when they wanted. The same is true of interactive advertising. Don't try to control the flow of the message. Let consumers look at what they want to look at, go where they want to go, interact at their own pace. Just make sure your piece is wonderful wherever they go.

Doing it right: That's the trick. The only way to do that is to get experience. So get started now. Whatever your flavor of interactive, apply these principles and you'll be learning the right lessons.

Mr. Brueckner is exec VP-creative director at Duval Woglom Brueckner & Partners, Boston.

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