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Madison Avenue Flirts With 3-D

Remember Princess Leia's holographic message to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Madison Avenue does, and it's starting to make 3-D digital images part of its marketing arsenal.

Papa John's International, the U.S. Postal Service and General Electric have begun to incorporate "augmented reality," or AR -- a technology that lets consumers interact with hologram-like images -- into their marketing. One well-known example of AR: the yellow first-down lines in TV broadcasts of football games.

Starting in June, pizza chain Papa John's is affixing an AR image to the back of 30 million pizza boxes, for a rollout in coming weeks. Customers can visit a special Web site, hold the image up to a Webcam and use their keyboard to drive an animated, 3-D 1972 Camaro on the computer screen.

It was a Camaro that the chain's founder, chairman and chief executive, John Schnatter, sold in 1984 to buy the restaurant equipment needed to open his first pizza place. The move also ties in to the chain's broader marketing program, which includes a cross-country road trip by Mr. Schnatter.

This week, the Postal Service will start running an ad campaign that touts a flat-rate shipping fee for its Priority Mail service. The online portion of the ad effort includes a "virtual box simulator" on the prioritymail.com site. The simulator allows consumers to hold an object, such as a cup or a book, in front of a Webcam and use the resulting 3-D image to determine the right size box for shipping the object.

The push into AR comes as companies have grown dissatisfied with relying solely on static advertising or passive media like TV commercials, which have washed over coach potatoes for years. In pursuit of alternatives, they have pumped money into approaches that encourage consumers to "engage" with their message or product, something ad executives believe helps increase sales.

AR is "a great way to get customers involved in a promotion in a more interactive way than just reading or seeing an ad," says Jim Ensign, Papa John's vice president of marketing.

Madison Avenue has high hopes for the gimmick. "It's the new bright and shiny object that marketers want," says Tom Bedecarre, chief executive of AKQA, a San Francisco digital marketing firm that created the Postal Service campaign. AKQA is currently pitching several of its clients' campaigns that include the technology.

Still, diving head first into a relatively new marketing technique carries some risk, marketing executives say. The technology "can be glitchy," says Christian Haas, a group creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, an Omnicom Group firm that created an AR campaign for General Electric earlier this year to illustrate ways to find new forms of energy.

When Web surfers held up an image in front of their cams, a 3-D wind farm appeared that showed three wind turbines with which they could interact. Goodby had to work overtime on the technology to make sure it functioned smoothly.

Moreover, though the number of Americans who own a Webcam is increasing rapidly because most new laptops come with the device, only about 18% of the nation's 68.5 million broadband households had one as of April, according to Parks Associates, a research firm.

Still, Goodby says, the GE push got plenty of attention. There have been more than one million visits to the company's Eco Smart Grid site since it was launched in February, and more than a quarter-million visitors to the site have spent more than five minutes on it. In addition, a demonstration of the GE promotion on Google's YouTube has been viewed more than one million times, according to Goodby.

Marketing executives are trying to make sure AR isn't just a flash in the pan. "Just because you can make a logo spin doesn't mean you should make a logo spin," says Mike Sabatino, senior vice president and partner at Fleishman-Hillard, the Omnicom Group public-relations firm that created the Papa John's pitch.

The Papa John campaign hopes to use the technology to sell pizzas by incorporating special discount offers available only through the billboards shown in the AR images. That way, the thinking goes, the chain can drive sales and also track how many people use the technology.

 

Suzanne Vranica, The Wall Street Journal. May 26, 2009

Copyright © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.