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A TV Show’s Content Calls the Commercial Plays

Sports commentators will not be the only ones remarking on Sunday’s National Football League games. Animated raccoons will also give instant feedback in advertisements for Wendy’s International that will be shown at the start of commercial breaks.

If the score is 0-0, an ad might start with a Wendy’s raccoon standing in front of an overturned trash can, saying, “I may be nocturnal, but this game is putting me to sleep.”

If there is a touchdown just before a commercial break, another raccoon might say: “Touchdown. These fans are as rabid as we are.”

With three sections of the commercial inserted on the fly, viewers could see up to 11 versions of the ad. All will include a voice-over saying, “Why eat junk at night when you can go to Wendy’s?”

The Wendy’s commercials, to be broadcast nationally on Fox Sports this weekend, are one of the earliest national examples of an emerging TV technology that allows advertisers to vary their message at the last minute. The Wendy’s ads will reflect events in the football games, creating what ad executives call a reverse product placement of sorts. Instead of putting Frostys or Wendy’s fries into a TV program, the company will incorporate a show’s content in its commercials.

TV advertisers are also now able to vary their spots based on audience demographics, changes in weather, sales goals or the campaigns of competitors. Borrowing a trick or two from the Internet, where ads are finely aimed at Web surfers, technology companies are working with consumer brand companies to move away from the one-message-fits-all approach.

“This is where the future’s going,” said Chris Boothe, president of Starcom USA, a media-buying agency that is part of the Publicis Groupe. “We think that everything’s going toward more customization. It’s making sure that the message to the consumer is happening at exactly the time it is relevant.”

Two technology companies that produce targeted TV ads, Visible World and OpenTV, are taking variable ads a step further by aiming at individual households, a tactic the ad industry calls addressable advertising.

Both Visible World and OpenTV declined to say which advertisers were aiming at household targets.

Targeted commercials delivered through digital cable systems could have more than 100,000 versions, as advertisers use different songs, punch lines and actors to reach different customers. Advertisers will use databases, like those used in direct mailings, to determine which houses to deliver which TV ad to.

“The idea is that it’s not really geographic anymore,” said Tracey Scheppach, vice president and video innovations director at Starcom USA. “It’s down to the individual household. It will look much more like direct mail. It will be looking to have dog ads go to houses that have dogs.”

Wendy’s, which is using Visible World’s technology for the raccoon ads, also tested targeted advertising on the local level in October. Depending on the weather, TV viewers in Hartford and Pittsburgh saw either a chili spot or a Frosty ad. When it was more than 60 degrees, Wendy’s showed the Frosty ads; when it was colder, the chili ad ran. Visible World’s computer system automatically checked the weather on weather.com.

October was a colder month in Hartford, so chili ads ran 79 percent of the time. In Pittsburgh, chili ads were shown just 38 percent of the time, according to Visible World. Wendy’s also varied its commercials in Milwaukee in October, but instead of weather it used the demographics of Milwaukee neighborhoods to decide which versions of its Super Value Menu ads to show.

Commercials have traditionally been difficult to change once distributed to TV networks, and it is expensive to create dozens of versions of the same ad. Visible World’s computer systems make variable advertising more practical by reducing the cost to create multiple ad versions, said Bill Katz, the company’s executive chairman.

Visible World licenses its ad-changing technology to TV networks and advertisers. Its technology has been used by more than 150 companies, including Ford and 1-800-Flowers. Ford likes to change its regional car ads based on the offers of competitors, and other Visible World clients change their TV spots based on which shows their ads appear in, Mr. Katz said.

OpenTV, a unit of Liberty Media that is transferring ownership next month to the Kudelski Group, a digital security company based in Switzerland, is another company that provides targeted ads around the world.

OpenTV is currently delivering multiple versions of commercials to cable set-top boxes in one region of the country, said Ed Knudson, senior vice president for advanced advertising. The cable boxes use viewer data to decide which commercial to show on that set-top box. Mr. Knudson declined to identify the cable operator involved in the test.

More relevant ads could help persuade viewers to stay tuned during commercial breaks. Fox Sports is prepared to use similar variable ads for advertisers, said Lou D’Ermilio, a spokesman for Fox Sports Networks.

“Anything that keeps people tuned in is good for the advertisers and good for the network,” he said.

Invidi Technologies, which is based in Princeton, N.J., has created a system to send different commercials to different TV sets based on demographic data and viewer behavior. Teenagers, for example, tend to turn on the TV and then rapidly change channels, said David Downey, the company’s chief executive. They also watch certain shows, so if a viewer is, say, changing the channel rapidly and watching ESPN, that viewer is likely to be a teenage boy. Invidi is working with cable networks to introduce its technology, Mr. Downey said.

For now, targeted commercials remain a novelty on national TV.

Wendy’s hopes its ads on Sunday will surprise viewers, said Ian Rowden, the chain’s chief marketing officer. Sports viewers will see them at the start of commercial breaks during these N.F.L. games: Tampa Bay at Cleveland, Chicago at Detroit, New Orleans at the New York Giants and Arizona at San Francisco.


Louise Story, The New York Times. December 21, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.