Interactive TV ads are clicking with viewers

Looking for ticket buyers, the Los Angeles Sparks women's pro basketball team recently tried a new ad play: A TV commercial during which viewers could press a button on their remote to get a team brochure.

Hundreds responded. "Whoever was on our billing information as head of household got the information," says Jim Heneghan, ad sales chief for cable company Charter Communications, which created the "interactive" TV ad and sold the time to the Sparks.

Cable operators such as Charter, as well as their satellite TV rivals, all are experimenting with such ads. Their goal: battle Internet media for ad dollars by merging a TV commercial's impact with former Web-only selling points such as interactive content, ad targeting based on consumers' personal data and precise effectiveness measurement based on how many people click on an ad for more information.

With a traditional 30-second spot you only know how many people saw it, says Sam Chadha, marketing director for deodorants at consumer products giant Unilever, which has used interactive ads for several products, including Degree deodorant. "Interactive TV lets marketers also study consumer behavior in response to the ad."

Making TV spots work harder is one of the ad industry's most discussed — and elusive — goals. Already, two-thirds of big marketers said standard TV ads became less effective in the past two years, according to a January survey by the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research.

The good news for sellers of TV ad time: 43% also said they are eager to try interactive TV ads.

Nike nke and Unilever are among the advertisers that have created interactive TV campaigns. Many more — from mom and pop retailers to national banks — are trying out a two-way dialogue via the channel clicker. Among the possibilities:

•TV ads or video-on-demand-offerings that let viewers order brochures, coupons or samples by pressing a button during the ad or video clip. A California mattress retailer offered a coupon for a free pillow and got about 1,000 requests in the first two weeks of the ad's airing.

•Interactive brand messages that are part of the TV programming. Unilever's Bertolli food brand, for example, sponsored polls and viewer voting during Bravo reality show Top Chef 3 Miami.

•Direct sales via an ad. A few marketers, including Reebok, have experimented with actually selling the products through interactive ads.

"TV on steroids," is how Unilever's Chadha describes the potential of interactive TV advertising.

It's about to get more pumped up.

Last month, the nation's six largest cable operators announced "Canoe Ventures," a project to promote interactive TV ads by standardizing the technical requirements across their systems. The group includes Cablevision cvc, Cox Communications cci, Comcast cmcsa, Time Warner Cable twx, Charter chtr and Bright House Networks.

Dog food ads just for dog owners

The venture will make it easier to give marketers "a chance to put the ads in front of the interested," says David Verklin, who becomes Canoe Ventures CEO on Aug. 4.

Among potential applications: Dog owners could be prompted to push a button on the remote if they want to see dog-friendly ads. The result? "It will allow us to put dog food commercials just in front of people who own dogs," Verklin says.

Chuck Thompson, head of strategic operations for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau trade group, deems that type of targeting the "holy grail."

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