Box clever

Reports of the death of the 30-second spot ad may be greatly exaggerated. However, interactive technology and new media look likely to give a new role to an old tool.

SBHD: Reports of the death of the 30-second spot ad may be greatly exaggerated. However, interactive technology and new media look likely to give a new role to an old tool.

Advertisers have been using more than the conventional spot ad to communicate with audiences since the beginnings of commercial radio in the US in the Thirties. But many would now agree with Procter & Gamble chairman Ed Artz who said, in a speech last year, that he believes the conventional 30-second TV spot is dead. Such fears about the fragmentation of TV audiences are leading advertisers to look at the opportunities of deregulation and new technology.

From sponsorship to advertiser funded programming and interactive ads, marketers and media managers need to know what is available, how it works and what is likely to succeed.

The Independent Television Commission published its first sponsorship code only in 1991. By 1993, the last year for which figures are available, sponsorship provided £40m of revenue for UK television, according to Mintel. The ITV network alone is believed to have taken about £25m from sponsorship last year.

More than 40 sponsored programmes and series have been broadcast by ITV since 1991. But Nick Walford, managing director of J Walter Thompson’s sponsorship company Vision 20/20, says: “Sponsorship remains cheaper than the equivalent airtime, which is a reflection of a buyer’s market.”

But broadcasters are likely to prevent sponsored programmes dominating their schedules, because they are a perceived turn-off for audiences. Agencies are also against saturation sponsorship. Sue Watson, head of programme sponsorship at Leo Burnett, says: “Hopefully we’ll never reach the point they have in the US, where sponsorship becomes simple billboard advertising for clients.

“Already some pan-European satellite channels have started to cut back the number of sponsorship opportunities they offer.”

Advertisers are now looking at ways to get in on the programme-making process at an early stage. They can then try to create a suitable audience for their products. In the US, large advertisers such as McDonald’s, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble are big programming players.

In the UK, advertiser-funded programming is supplied as a straight programme sale. So far it has been fairly limited. In 1993 Texaco provided the IndyCar ’93 series, Unilever funds Scottish TV’s Wheel of Fortune and the Euro-soap Riviera, and P&G co-funded the Granada drama Pied Piper while Pepsi provided youth culture programme Passengers for Channel 4.

However, serious players are moving into advertiser-supplied programming. Adam Stanhope, former chief executive of Initiative Media, and his broadcast director, Robert Ditcham, have started up a partnership with production company Kudos to link advertisers’ needs for audiences with cable channels’ needs for programming.

Ditcham says: “We know that advertisers want to reach specific audiences that are currently being neglected.

“By meeting that demand we can sustain the cost of creating original programming.”

They are strong advocates for a form of promotion that remains illegal in the UK – product placement. Product placement companies can stay within ITC regulations by supplying products free and there are a small but thriving number of specialists, such as First Place, getting clients’ products into scenes appropriate for their marketing strategy. The opportunities have to be “script-generated” and not proposed by the advertiser or specialist.

Above-the-line agencies including O&M Media and TBWA have started working closely with placement agencies to dovetail the placement of products with overall brand strategies. This has led, in O&M’s case, to fewer Ford cars being given away as prizes – which was undervaluing the marque – and instead to inclusion of the cars in programmes aimed at the agency’s target market.

Sponsors may not sponsor programmes which include their products. Beamish was able to sponsor Inspector Morse because he was a real ale fan, not a stout drinker. But private healthcare company PPP was prevented by the ITC from sponsoring a second series of Peak Practice in case of “unintentional sponsor interest” in the storylines.

Blurring the distinction between programming and advertising can only go so far with product placement. Infomercials – ads that looks like programmes – may be the way ahead for advertisers to communicate more than can be a 30-second ad spot.

Restrictions on UK terrestrial channels mean seven minutes an hour is the longest amount of ad time allowed, largely ruling out the infomercial. But cable and satellite, as ever crying out for cheap programming strands, are keen to see the 30-minute infomercial grow to the prominence it has in the US. BSkyB has already supplied five-minute infomercials for Jus-Rol pastry through Leo Burnett.

Infomercials will always be restricted on terrestrial broadcast stations because of the high cost of airtime. Only the fringe channels will look for it to be a substantial part of their revenues.

Advertising agencies are attempting to come to terms with technology-driven changes to the media and are all setting new media units to deal with the future, but no one is entirely sure how video on demand or interactivity may be properly exploited.

Some creative executions, such as that for Mazda by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, attempt to create a form of interactivity with the viewer being asked to turn to a page on Teletext, to videotape an upcoming ad that is crammed with information and needs a pause button to be read.

But this is old media being called “interactive”, and it is questionable how many people will bother to tape an ad. True interactivity has just started with the use of multiple camera angles on separate channels for the same programme by London cable company Videotron. This allows viewers to select their preferred view of a programme and answer simple on-screen questions. Videotron hopes that by next year viewers will be able to request more information on products at the touch of a button after seeing an ad.

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