NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON VODKA - Do TV viewers care enough to interact with the advertising? Clare Conley reports on the latest brand-building idea: narrative interactive TV ads

Vodka can get you emotional. This may not come as a big surprise to anyone who has had one Seabreeze too many and discovered how much they like that work colleague they'd always hated so much in the sober light of day.

In this instance, though, it's the spirit of charity which Publicis hopes to move using its new Video on Demand Kind of Advertising (VODKA). Viewers will be able to choose the narrative ending of an ad using their remote control in what the agency claims is a global first. And the idea is that dictating the storyline will lead to closer emotional engagement.

The ad, for the homelessness charity Depaul Trust, will be aired during Inspector Morse in the Granada region on 16 August.

After the first ten seconds of the two-minute ad, subscribers to Kingston Interactive Television (KIT) will have the opportunity to choose between four different narratives showing the choices facing a homeless boy. A default ad will run for the remaining Granada viewers and all the ads end by cutting back to the first scene to show that all those routes lead back to the same place.

In another first in advertising, viewers can simply press a button at the end of the ad to make a £10 donation, which will be added on to their monthly KIT bill using the same payment system as pay-per-view films.

Publicis will create banner ads to run as teasers on the front page of KIT's broadband video-on-demand (VOD) service, which airs films, music videos and TV programmes. The ad will be available via a dedicated website and CD-Rom too.

Jon Williams, the creative director of Publicis Networks, has spent two years developing the VODKA technique.

"There is so much opportunity that no-one seemed to be exploiting in this area. I just thought there had been enough chat and that it was time to get on and do it, Williams says. Choosing a charity for what Williams calls a "feasibility study for VODKA allowed a greater degree of creative freedom than a demanding FMCG client nervous about taking its first step into a new advertising medium may have done.

Everyone involved, including the director Jake Scott, gave their time for free, saying it was a cause they believed in. But the ad was still expensive. The downside of allowing consumers to plot their own route through an ad is the extra expense of providing multiple endings. Each ending must work as a polished ad in its own right. Ten minutes of footage was needed for the four choices on the Depaul Trust ad. At four times the length of traditional 30-second ads, two-minute ads will also bump up the cost of airspace dramatically.

VOD ads need to be longer while they are in their infancy, Phil Nunn, the executive director of interactive@optimedia, the media agency for the Depaul Trust ad, admits.

"Consumers need to know what they are watching and get used to this new medium. But in about three years' time I think we will have reached the point where VOD ads are ten or 15 seconds long and people will make three choices in that time, he adds.

Charities have an emotional pull, which is also crucial to VODKA and the jury is out on how this will translate to brands outside the fundraising sector. Chris Ketley, the managing director of Zenith Interactive Solutions, says: "Cause-related marketing is absolutely right for this medium. The biggest challenge to advertisers is bringing about an immediate change in attitudes and converting it into the direct action of donating. There is the danger that FMCG brands won't have the same emotional pull."

The aspirational quality inherent in car branding makes it one of the more obvious categories for this level of interactivity in the future.

Multiple ad endings could allow viewers to drive cars along different routes, see the inside of the car and look at the different features available for each model. Ordering a brochure via the microsite could be just a push of the button away.

Joanna Perry, the Publicis copywriter who worked on the Depaul Trust ad, points out that younger people tend to pick up new technology easier.

"Brands like Nike and Coca-Cola could easily add another layer of fun," she says. A series of ads with a storyline, in the vein of the Gold Blend couple, could allow consumers to get involved in the narrative to a greater degree.

However, there are still major practical obstacles to overcome before big brand advertisers are likely to jump aboard the VODKA boat. KIT is currently the only platform that can support this type of advertising and it reaches just 10,000 households in Hull and East Yorkshire. The bigger players, such as Sky, ntl and Telewest, offer different platforms, which would involve developing ads for each platform. Nigel Sheldon, the managing partner of mdigital at MindShare, says: "Sky won't need VOD either. It could just put movies on different channels and stagger it."

Scheduling and media buying would also be complicated in preventing VOD ads interfering with other commercial ads or eating into programme time. And data protection, specifically ownership and storage of data captured at the microsite, is another issue which still needs to be thrashed out.

With the extra cost implications and technical barriers, VODKA faces an uphill struggle to achieving wider distribution. But the success of interactivity on programmes such as Big Brother shows that viewers, especially the younger ones, are keen to get more involved with what they watch.

So can advertising afford not to take the next steps in interactivity?

Perry doesn't think so. "It will make normal ads seem linear and one dimensional in the future, she says.

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