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Interactive Commercials From the Olympics

Interactive television commercials made their Olympic debut during Friday night's opening ceremonies.

For all the pomp and circumstance of the Salt Lake City festivities, the interactivity wasn't splashy. It wasn't animated. It wasn't really all that entertaining. And it wasn't even available to any but the six million households that had the right software.

Yet the Olympic commercials for AT&T and TD Waterhouse, an investment firm, are the most visible efforts by advertisers so far into the ever-beckoning world of interactive television. Viewing and interacting with the ads, which are being broadcast throughout the Olympics, requires having software from Wink Communications on television cable or satellite boxes. Most households with such capacities are subscribers to the DirecTV satellite service.

Throughout the Olympics, all viewers of NBC's broadcast coverage will see the AT&T and TD Waterhouse ads. But the Wink households will also see a red "i" logo in the corner of their screens during those commercials. These viewers can then press buttons on their remote controls and be led through a series of questions that appear in a small window overlaid on the regular television commercial.

Wink, based in Alameda, Calif., and a leading company in interactive commercials, expects to have its software and service in 10 million households by the end of the year - about one-tenth of America's television households.

For the most part, interactive television in the United States has been as effective as one hand clapping. Viewers are not demanding it. But cable operators, software companies and television networks have poured billions of dollars into preparing themselves for the seismic shift they have been predicting for years.

Wink's strategy has been to cobble together partnerships with 50 of the top 100 advertisers, the four major broadcast networks as well as CNN and ESPN and cable and satellite TV operators.

Wink, started in 1995, took its name from a column that was written by Nicholas Negroponte, a co- founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory. Mr. Negroponte argued that a wink of an eye between two people who knew each other was the most efficient form of data compression - a simple action that conveyed a lot of information.

In the bigger-faster-splashier world of multimedia, Wink takes a relatively simple approach. Its controls have a primitive, 1980's graphic feel. But the company says that 60 percent of homes with Wink click on its ads an average of nine times a month. Wink provides advertisers with demographic information on the "clickers" that it gathers through the cable companies.

Advertisers have been experimenting with Wink for several years. TD Waterhouse started using Wink ads from February to April last year to encourage viewers to open IRA accounts. To viewers who indicated an interest, TD Waterhouse mailed new account information through addresses provided by Wink. It used Wink again this year, having found the commercials a quick, cost-effective way to reach new customers.

Cossette Post Communications, a division of the Cossette Communication Group, has created new ads for TD Waterhouse that use the actor Steven Hill as a spokesman. The ads have been running since early January, but Wink abilities were added last week.

The Olympics coverage kicks off AT&T's three-month interactive advertising campaign for its new unlimited service long-distance plan. The plan, which was introduced last month, enables residential customers to place unlimited calls to other AT&T residential long-distance customers for $19.95 a month. The campaign was created by Young & Rubicam in New York and by Digitas in Boston.

The AT&T commercial asks viewers some basic questions, like, How interested are you in this? (Definitely/Somewhat/Not Interested); Are you an AT&T long-distance customer? (Yes/No); How much do you spend each month on long distance? ($25 or more/under $25).

"There's not much you can do in 30 seconds," said Amy Hebard, a consumer market research manager with AT&T's long-distance division. "You have to make it simple. You have to make it small."

But AT&T's marketing division is hoping that the survey information, which can be cross-referenced to subscriber profiles, can offer a better sense of which consumers are interested in the $19.95 plan. The marketing division will receive daily reports on the viewers who interact with the commercial. Eventually, AT&T plans to use interactive commercials to sell products.

But there is another, more intriguing application that customers do not see. AT&T is using Wink to determine which viewers are channel surfing during its commercials. "If we find that half the time people on `Law and Order' change channels during our commercials, whereas on MTV 95 percent of viewers stay, that's an important piece of information that we don't have," Ms. Hebard said..

TD Waterhouse used the audience response statistics from last year's campaign to choose the most effective channels and times for their commercials during this year's tax season.


Jennifer Lee, The New York Times. February 11, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times. All rights reserved.