Interactive TV must tune into entertainment to win viewers

Last week I was present at the invention of a new word. “Zopping, vbl. sb. 1999 [f. Zapping vbl. sb. and Stop v.]. The action of using a remote control to interact with a television commercial in such a way as to miss the remaining commercials in the break and the start of the next programme.”

The word was dreamt up, apparently on the spot, by Nick Barron of Expert Media at a conference on interactive TV advertising organised by a specialist agency, Grey Interactive.

Interactive advertising is in its infancy, which is one reason why people have to invent words to talk about it. In the past three or four years, a number of hi-tech digital TV trials around the world have given advertisers the opportunity to experiment, and to see whether lessons learned from Internet-based e-commerce (or “e-tailing”, another recent coinage) can be applied to television.

The results – we were shown several during the course of the day – have been mixed, at least so far as advertising is concerned. One of the least impressive examples, ironically, came from BT, which ran an interactive TV trial in Ipswich and Colchester a few years ago. BT’s idea of an “interactive ad” was to run a clip from a classic TV comedy, then invite viewers to press one of seven buttons on the remote control for “further information” (a phone number) on BT services.

More impressive was a Pepsi spot – clearly targeted at Pepsi’s market and reinforcing its existing branding – which also ran in the trial: choose a pop video, then vote on it.

An interactive trial run by the cable company Videotron featured a Kellogg’s Frosties ad, fast-cut, noisy, exciting and engaging, in which viewers chose what kind of surfing experience Frosties’ Tony the tiger would enjoy. With thousands of potential routes through the commercial, children returned to it again and again, the conference was told.

In Germany, meanwhile, they advertise Nescafé with an interactive commercial which offers (male) viewers a choice of three women with whom to share a cup of something warming. And in France several car manufacturers have tried interactive ads – see the model of your choice in different colours, contact a salesman or book a test drive – as have Lego and Buitoni.

In Hong Kong they offer video-on-demand, home shopping and banking, even an interactive MBA and interactive horse-racing, but when it comes to interactive advertising they’ve yet to get beyond the conventional TV spot. “Interactivity” means having to watch a Pantene commercial before enjoying a free Pantene-sponsored movie on the video-on-demand service.

To be candid, these examples weren’t very impressive. They also raise a number of unanswered questions. What should be done about “zopping”, if some commercials on conventional channels are interactive? How should interactive advertising be priced, when the time the viewer spends with the ad may vary wildly? How should audiences be measured? Should interactive advertising be presented as breaks in conventional channels or as part of special advertising “ghettos”? If the latter, how do you entice viewers in?

And, perhaps most important of all, where does interactive advertising stop and transactions begin. Most advertisers find it hard to resist the opportunities of a medium whose two-way character and return path (whether by phone or cable) enables them to sell directly off the screen, or to generate useful data about consumers.

Perhaps that’s why some of the shrewdest contributions to the conference came not from media owners or agencies but from some of the advertisers: Procter & Gamble, British Airways and the retail group Arcadia (formerly Burton).

P&G has been enthusiastic about using interactive media for two-way communication with consumers. But Rahul Chakkara, P&G’s interactive marketing manager for Europe, sees problems devising sufficiently simple consumer interfaces, and with the bewildering range of different interactive digital TV platforms.

The company also likes the fact that ads on the Internet can be “addressable”: if the advertiser is given access to the right consumer data, each ad can be individually crafted, near-instantaneously, with details of local dealers, or versions of the brand most appropriate for the consumer’s circumstances. But will that be possible on digital TV? And will giving the advertiser that data raise issues of privacy and data protection?

P&G, BA and Arcadia are worried about the increased costs of preparing complex and sophisticated creative treatments, and of the technical infrastructure. Eva Pascoe, Arcadia’s online director, maintains interactive TV advertising won’t become viable until the digital TV universe reaches 5 million – and even then she expects the TV companies, not the advertisers, to pay for the technology.

And Arcadia’s experience with the Net – where its “sexiest man” poll for Top Shop and its online fashion help have apparently proved highly popular – suggests that in this context advertising shades inexorably into selling. BA thinks the same.

But one thing everyone seems to agree on – interactive advertising has to be fun. Viewers experience it in the context of a device, the television, which they associate with entertainment and relaxation. They like games and jokes and quizzes. They need to be wooed with attractive and engaging content. Playing with the remote control becomes part of the entertainment. So perhaps it’s not surprising they try a bit of “zopping”.

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