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Testing, Testing

When in comes to advertising on TV, "spray and pray" is yesterday's news. Now, marketers are frantically trying to find a replacement.

Advertisers know that the old formula -- where they place the same 30-second ad on as many channels as possible, and hope the commercial's message will stick in the consumer's mind -- makes less and less sense.

As a result, the airwaves are filled these days with a dizzying array of commercial stunts -- short ads, long ads, commercials thinly disguised as half-hour pieces of entertainment, commercial-free premieres sponsored by a single advertiser, and even several ads from one advertiser aired back to back to back during a single commercial break.

"It's sort of the Wild West out there right now" as marketers try to cope with dramatic changes in the media landscape, says Page Thompson, chief executive of Omnicom Group Inc.'s OMD North America, a media-buying firm.

With so much experimentation going on, there are no clear winners or losers yet among the strategies being tried. Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that the environment is so different that the old ways of doing business aren't good enough any more.

The conventional ad emerged at a very different time, when most people had a choice of just three big TV networks and a handful of independent TV stations. There was no cable, Internet or videogames to distract them. Then, the ad world believed that so long as viewers watched a couple of big-name shows each week, advertisers could be reasonably sure that the clever slogans and familiar jingles they devised would be heard -- and remembered.

Now, however, viewers have dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of TV channels to choose from, not to mention Web sites, DVDs, videogames, video-on-demand programs and podcasts. At the same time, digital video recorders are making it easier for consumers to shun ads altogether; watching a program recorded on a DVR allows viewers to fast-forward through the commercial breaks.

Just for You

Faced with these challenges, ad executives say the main drawback of the traditional ad campaign is that it is too broadly targeted: TV ads need to be more relevant to a narrower audience if they're to get anyone's attention. "People who are passionate about their favorite shows watch them differently," says Bill Morningstar, executive vice president of national sales for the new CW network, jointly owned by CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. They're more attentive and so might be more receptive to carefully targeted ads. "How do we tap into this environment?"

Some advertisers are sharpening their focus by running ads aimed at audiences watching particular programs or channels.

Johnson & Johnson's Neutrogena, for example, recently ran an ad during "Saturday Night Live" aimed only at the people watching that show. The spot showed outtakes from other Neutrogena ads, depicting fresh-faced actresses committing a series of verbal bloopers. "Now you know why we don't do live commercials," said an announcer, who then went on to salute "the people who do live TV the best -- SNL." A slightly different version of the spot, crafted by Omnicom Group's Rogers & Tarlow, introduced a live season premiere of the sitcom "Will & Grace" last year. At the end of that ad, a Neutrogena logo appeared on the screen and the camera zeroed in on the "o" and then appeared to pass through it to show the beginning of the episode.

Philips Electronics NV used a different approach last year, paying about $2 million to be the sole national sponsor of one episode of "60 Minutes" on CBS. The program typically attracts Philips's target audience: middle-aged, affluent and well-educated people.

In some cases, advertisers are shifting from just interrupting programs with ads to creating programs outright. The idea: Even in a show that has high viewership among the target audience, many of those viewers might be ignoring the ads. But if the show itself can be crafted to promote a product, you can reach more people.

This is more subtle -- and, the advertisers hope, more powerful -- than product placement. Consider two shows created by Unilever aimed at what has become one of the hardest audiences for advertisers to reach: men between the ages of 18 and 34. "This is someone who is overmarketed to, highly saturated with messages, skeptical," says David Rubin, director of brand development for Axe, a line of Unilever body-grooming products for men. For this kind of audience, he says, advertisers can't rely on the hard-sell sledgehammer; they need to think of ways to make a deeper connection with the specific customer base.

'More Like Content'

To that end, the shows that Unilever created played up attitudes embodied by Axe. "The Gamekillers," a one-hour show that was repeated several times on Viacom Inc.'s MTV network, told viewers about different characters that can ruin a guy's attempts to attract a woman. "Exposing the Order of the Serpentine," a half-hour show that ran several times on Viacom's Spike channel, told of a fictitious brotherhood that has devised rituals to help guys get over the shock of "a questionable hookup" with a woman, says Mr. Rubin. Axe ads ran on both shows, along with commercials from other companies. But for Unilever the ads weren't the main point -- the shows were.

More advertisers are likely to explore this avenue, says Kevin Roddy, executive creative director of the New York office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Unilever's ad agency, which helped devise the programs. "We need to be much more like content than more like an interruption," he says.

That idea has also led to ads with qualities akin to those of TV programs. The CW network is offering a new ad-sales format known as a "content wrap." During the course of an evening, an advertiser will get to tell a story over three different two-minute commercial breaks, says the network's Mr. Morningstar. The ads could be tailored to suit the network's programming on a given night, he says. So if Wednesday night is full of shows related to fashion, then the wraps would be aimed at audiences who watch those shows.

In a similar vein, Procter & Gamble Co. has been experimenting with a format known as a "showmercial," or a series of ads that tell a story. One of the nation's biggest advertisers, P&G recently aired a series of vignettes about a family of dogs known as "The Poocharellis," who got into situations that required Febreze, an odor-killing air freshener. The vignettes were 90 seconds long and aired on Viacom's Nick at Nite. A previous P&G campaign told of women getting makeovers, with the story being told over the course of an entire movie on the Lifetime cable network, which is owned by Hearst Corp. and Walt Disney Co.

Still, what advertisers really want is the ability to deliver different ads to different viewers or households, through use of cable, satellite or other technology. Advertisers, conscious that the Web and mobile devices make it possible to target individual customers, want to know why they can't do that on TV, says Bill Katz, chairman of New York-based Visible World Inc. -- one of a number of companies that are hard at work trying to turn that vision into a reality.

Visible World allows advertisers to digitally customize their ads with different messages for specific audiences. A maker of soup might change the last 10 seconds of an ad if a snowstorm hits in a certain region of the country, for example, telling that particular audience how good a warm bowl of chicken noodle might taste right now.


Invidi Technology Corp., a Princeton, N.J., company, says it is in the final stages of testing a technology that will allow advertisers to deliver specific ads via set-top boxes to individual households. "If you don't have anybody in diapers when you see a diaper commercial, it's a wasted impression," says David Downey, Invidi's chief executive.

Meanwhile, advertisers and TV networks are pursuing any number of other initiatives. Themed ad breaks are one idea being discussed. For instance, one might center on taking a vacation, and feature messages from an airline, a hotel and a travel service. Other ads could offer a secret code to help viewers win a videogame. There's even a new series of ads that is trying to entice viewers to use ad-skipping DVRs to advertisers' advantage: In one example, an ad from Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC included a single frame in which a code word appeared that viewers could use to claim a coupon for a free chicken sandwich. Only viewers who used their DVR or videocassette recorder to slow the ad and watch it frame by frame could see the code.

Getting all this right might take years, but you can expect Madison Avenue to keep on trying, and it should be fun to watch. "There will be acrobatics," says OMD's Mr. Thompson.


Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.