CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/INTERACTIVE TV - Will interactivity help TV viewers avoid the ads? Research suggests viewers are switching off the ads to go online

'Just press the button,' the commercial for Open urges us. And the thing is, we do. Those of us who can, that is. More than 60 per cent of people with access to interactive services have used them, according to Online Culture, a research study published by the Henley Centre last week. That is more than three million viewers in total. Which is good news, isn't it?

'Just press the button,' the commercial for Open urges us. And the thing is, we do. Those of us who can, that is. More than 60 per cent of people with access to interactive services have used them, according to Online Culture, a research study published by the Henley Centre last week. That is more than three million viewers in total. Which is good news, isn't it?

Well, yes. Sort of. But the bad news, again according to Online Culture, is that a quarter of all interactive activity takes place during TV ad breaks. And we're not talking about people clicking through from interactive ads. In any case, interactive ads are always scheduled at the ends of breaks to counter the possibility of just this sort of ratings drain.

No. We're talking about the interactive domain as a kettle substitute - instead of getting up off the couch to make a cup of tea when the break starts, people are pressing the button and flipping through to explore the interactive domain.

They're checking out advertiser microsites, they're trying to work out how to use the e-mail function and they're attempting to play games such as Battleships and Trivial Pursuit.

So it's no surprise to find advertisers worried about this dynamic, and none more so than one of the study's backers: Abbey National. In a statement coinciding with the study's publication, Ambrose McGinn, Abbey National's retail e-commerce and strategic development director, states that the figures could accelerate the bank's move out of TV and into other media. 'We are moving away from broadcasting anyway, but we don't want to pay for television spots if people are not watching, but doing something else,' he says. 'The funding model in the television industry may have to change as a result in the long term.'

Strong stuff. Is he right? Some will point out the irony of Abbey National's stand on this.

As one of the strongest content providers on platforms such as Open, Abbey National is, after all, a prime mover in the interactive revolution.

And its e-banking service - which can be accessed through these interactive platforms - has more than 750,000 registered users, largely thanks to a heavyweight marketing campaign based on TV commercials starring Alan Davies.

Others will point out that we have become somewhat inured to 'the end of the advertising world as we know it' scares. For instance, the Henley Centre study's use of 'ethnographic' research, involving video cameras being placed in five family homes to monitor TV and computer habits, mirrors an exercise used by the Newspaper Publishers Association ten years ago to argue that TV advertising just didn't work. And, of course, more recently we've been introduced to the TiVo scare.

Paul Longhurst, the managing director of Quantum New Media, argues that, tempting though it is to spot trends in the research available so far, there are actually no clear conclusions to be drawn: 'The figures I have seen indicate that the traffic patterns are erratic. There's plenty of evidence that they go into interactive services during programming too.

I think what you can say is that people tend to use the interactive services during periods they regard as downtime - and that includes programming that hasn't captivated them - but as far as I've seen, there's no data to suggest it's happening within ad breaks more than anywhere else.'

That doesn't mean the commercial break is safe, Longhurst adds, citing the TiVo threat: 'It's not an issue we can walk away from. It's clear we need more research about the commercial break and its possible loss of power. But I think we all believe that compelling advertising, like compelling programming, will keep people watching.'

Paul Parashar, the broadcast director of New PHD, also cautions against jumping to conclusions. He comments: 'If people are watching less TV or if there is a lot of clutter or if people are skipping ad breaks, the question is more about how you reach them, rather than whether you should be doing something like direct mail rather than TV. It's not about cutting spend. It's about having an overall strategy in which interactivity plays a part. It may be about getting closer to the editorial side of things.

If you are going to argue that spot advertising is less relevant, then you have to look at other routes - like sponsorship and brand partnerships.'

But will that be as easy as it sounds? Last week the Independent Television Commission made it clear that advertisers and agencies would not be cut any slack when it comes to advertiser-funded programming - even in the interactive TV domain.

Parashar says we shouldn't underestimate the ingenuity of advertisers.

'For instance I don't think anyone's appreciated how big an achievement it has been for Ralph Lauren to become such a large part of the Friends plotline,' he responds. And he also believes it's too early to panic: 'There's a lot of novelty value and experimentation being recorded in the research we've seen. It will settle down.'

That is the view of many. Older readers will remember a time in the 20th century when people used to 'surf the internet'. Research from a number of sources reveals such unstructured curiosity is rare these days - people now tend to use the web for specific tasks and problem solving, or to receive updates from a select number of news sources. That will happen too, they predict, with interactive television. The novelty will wear off.

Graham Duff, the chief executive of Zenith Media, argues that interactive services offer both an opportunity and a threat - an interesting dichotomy for the industry. Duff says: 'We still foresee a robust future for traditional TV advertising. There is little doubt that TV will remain a very powerful mass medium, but it has to continue to deliver genuinely attentive audiences.'

Tim Carrigan, the managing partner of OgilvyOne, has an ideal perspective on all of this. OgilvyOne is a backer of Online Culture and it has an unparalleled track record in interactive TV, having monitored campaigns for several Unilever brands, including Chicken Tonight, Dove and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

He agrees the potential to screen out ad breaks is greater - and, yes, maybe people should be rethinking their approach to television advertising.

He doesn't, however, believe anyone has any cause to draw apocalyptic conclusions from the recent Online Culture findings.

Carrigan concludes: 'It's true that 25 per cent of those who do interact do it during ad breaks. But that's a long way from saying the whole audience interacts during every ad break. The figures are not big enough to make advertisers call into question the whole basis of television advertising.'



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