Moviegoers at 12 U.K. cinemas on Saturday became human joysticks.
They were shown an ad for the Volvo XC70 before the movie Ratatouille, and were asked to put their hands in the air and wave them left or right — as a group. A single camera at the front of the theater translated the audience's collective leanings, and the onscreen animated car drove in that direction.
That participatory commercial represents a growing trend in movie theater advertising, with on-screen ads and lobby displays becoming more interactive, more entertainment-oriented and frequently offbeat — such as a tongue-in-cheek promotion where an oral-care company stuck dental picks to the popcorn bags.
The idea is that more fun makes advertising go down better with a theater's captive audience.
"If you are going to use cinema advertising, the bar is higher in terms of the engagement and the entertainment that you have to bring to the table," says Jay Waters, chief strategy officer at marketing agency Luckie and Co. "Consumers think, 'I get free programming at home in exchange for watching advertising, but I paid to come in here, so why should I have to watch an ad?' "
The innovations come as marketers continue to ramp up spending on movie theater promotions.
On Monday, the Cinema Advertising Council will report that spending in 2006 hit $456 million — a 15% rise over the prior year. That total includes revenue from on-screen commercials — ads that run before the movie previews — as well as off-screen promotions, such as lobby displays, sample handouts and ads on popcorn bags. CAC members represent about 81% of the movie screens in the USA.
As cinema ads become a regular part of the movie-going experience, marketers continue to try new techniques to test their potential for amusing, rather than alienating, the paying customers.
"If you let people have fun, they don't feel like they've been intruded upon," says David Polinchock, chief experience officer at Brand Experience Lab, which was responsible for the interactive technology behind the Volvo ad. "They don't walk away upset."
Matthew Kearney, CEO of Screenvision, which sells ads for theater chains such as National Amusements and Carmike Cinemas, says the company aims for "entertainment" in on-screen ads before previews that "are designed to help the time pass."
Those ads are welcome new revenue for theater owners grappling with lack of growth in U.S. ticket sales.
From 2002 to 2004, box-office revenue remained relatively flat, hovering around $9.5 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In 2005, it dipped to $8.4 billion, before reviving to $9.6 billion last year.
Yet, some ad critics still sit there seething and anti-ad groups have organized via the Internet, such as the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America. At captiveaudience.org, consumers are urged to "say 'NO' to TV commercials before feature films at movie theaters."
Theater owners, however, continue to say, "Yes." A look at what's been showing up at theaters:
•Long-form videos. This month, Geico launched a two-minute music video featuring its ad cavemen singing about romantic troubles in their lives. Set in a chic apartment, the video ends with a plug for the Geico website CavemansCrib.com.
"People would much rather see this than a still ad for a dentist," says Phil Ovuka, Geico media director.