One commercial leads to another as ads go online

Marketers push consumers to their websites

McCain Oven Chips, Dr Marten’s and Volvo are just three recent examples of a new kind of advertising. All three have run television or film commercial whose main purpose is to get viewers to visit their respective websites.

McCain uses a documentary-style voiceover to inform us that the brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary in the UK. It plugs a never-before-aired infomercial, fronted by former Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton. This piece of archive footage apparently made some weirdly prescient predictions about social changes in our fair isle. The soundtrack is straight out of a conspiracy theory documentary, and intrigue is the name of the game. A visit to the campaign microsite – chinup.co.uk – offers a virtual tour of a very Seventies home, complete with funky music blaring from the transistor radio. Incentivised by the chance to enter a &£25,000 prize draw, if only they can find and click on the right household object, viewers enter a highly interactive brand arena.

The mysterious infomercial is viewed by clicking on the TV set, and anyone who still believes it’s the real deal by the end of the increasingly silly film needs a trip to the gullibility doctor. On entering the draw, an e-mail is immediately dispatched, signed by dear old Ms Singleton.

This advertising strategy is an attempt by brands to have their cake and eat it too. The TV ad gives strong brand exposure and increases the chance of brand recall by using a teaser technique. This means that even those who don’t subsequently visit the microsite should still find the ad more memorable than a standard commercial.

But the really clever bit is using a film, viewable online only, as the hook to convert a TV and film audience into an internet audience. Suddenly, the Net becomes a lean-back, rather than lean-forward, experience. Of course, once online, TV couch potatoes will be drawn into a more interactive experience and encouraged to submit their personal details.

Volvo’s latest TV ads try the same technique, although personally I find them hugely unintriguing. Nevertheless, the “Life on board” films are strangely engrossing once you’re on the website. They are the kind of thing you can have running as a sort of aural wallpaper.

Car ads on TV have, over the past 15 years, moved away from product specificity, replacing it with vague lifestyle imagery. This has now reached a farcical stage, with cars often almost completely absent from the ads. By using the Web as a channel to “screen” ads the length of a mini-documentary, Volvo has changed things significantly.

The Dr Marten’s cinema ad entices people to the brand’s website by offering a series of mini-documentaries on people who have chosen unusual careers – perfect material for the brand’s trendy young target market. And especially well-targeted for the cinema-goers with whom I went to see an independent film the other day.

Now that broadband is threatening to become the dominant mode of online usage in the UK, short films such as these make a lot of sense. Broadband users at home have that same instant-access, “always-on” feel that they enjoy with TV. Nevertheless, this new type of ad has not yet become so commonplace that it is not ever so slightly shocking. After all, ad agencies are now thinking the unthinkable – relegating their own medium’s importance in favour of directing viewers to the Web.

The key lesson of these fascinating new developments in broadcast advertising is that passive viewing (lean-back) is no longer so distinct from active viewing (lean-forward). In the information age, consumers are much more flexible in how they choose to view all material.

Meanwhile, other forms of online advertising continue to grow apace – witness Google’s surge in turnover and profits, thanks mainly to its Adwords offering.

Across the Atlantic, the latest survey from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) shows online advertising revenue up 40 per cent to $4.6bn (&£2.5bn) in the first half of 2004. The industry has seen seven consecutive quarters of growth since late 2002, with each of the last three setting records.

Ad revenue from search-engine marketing has nearly doubled this year, while rich media and other display and banner ads are growing at a rate of 25 per cent – five times the overall industry average. The IAB predicts that online advertising revenue will hit $10bn (&£5.4bn) by the end of the year.

The US experience shows the extent to which big companies are shifting sizeable portions of their marketing budget online. Ford’s Lincoln Mercury division, for instance, recently assigned 25 per cent of its ad budget to the Net, while broadband phone company Vonage spends more than half its marketing dollars online. Sources also suggest that McDonald’s has boosted its online spend tenfold in just a couple of years.

The doom and gloom of the post- bubble years is well and truly behind us: online advertising has once again become, if not the only game in town, then certainly the most exciting.

dwek@journalist.co.uk

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