TV-style adverts arrive on the web


26 Feb 2004

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Is this what they mean by convergence? TV and the web moved a step closer recently with the debut of a new technology that promises broadcast-quality full-screen video on websites; its supporters have already saddled it with the tag “the next generation of online advertising”.

The pitch would not be lost on any ad executive: the video commercial’s (VC) full-screen sound and vision potentially offers the most effective means yet of conveying a sponsor’s message online, compared with traditional web ad formats. It also holds the promise of allowing companies to exploit their existing investment in TV ads in a different medium, instead of having to set aside part of a marketing budget specifically for advertising on the web only.

New York-based Unicast has come up with a patented technology format that displays 30-second television style ad spots on the internet. Since mid-January, several leading US websites have been participating in a beta launch of this new format. Ads from companies as diverse as Honda, McDonald’s, Warner Brothers and Pepsi-Cola have been appearing on sites such as Msn.com, Lycos.com, Accuweather.com, About.com, Espn.com, Cbssportsline.com and Abcnews.com as part of the trial.

Unicast uses a pre-cached method to deliver VCs to sites, which means that ads play transitionally (non-streamed). Users don’t need to download a media player application to view the ads and they have the option to close out of them at any time.

The format runs up to eight times faster than traditional broadband video, Unicast claims. A 2MB VC isn’t subject to the same file size and bandwidth constraints as streamed video, so it doesn’t suffer from image freezing when the signal buffers during download, which is what happens currently with traditional streamed media.

John Vail, director of digital media and marketing with Pepsi-Cola North America, was quick to endorse the format calling the VC “the next generation of online advertising”. He says: “It allows us to bring our broadcast messages online and deliver a television-like experience without the television.”

The news comes at a time when advertising spending looks set to rise again, with growth in the online ad market expected to outperform media such as network television, radio and newspapers, according to forecasts from TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. So all’s set for a new era of advertising?

Irish users may still have some time to wait before seeing VCs on local sites, with the local ad industry curious but reluctant to jump in with both feet. In truth we are already experiencing elements of the concept; many banner or pop-up ads contain some streamed images and web ads that appear when the user passes from one part of the site (known in the trade as transitionals or overlays) have been around for some time.

The Irish online media agency Ican used transitionals for the launch of the Permanent TSB brand in 2002, where a six-second advert created in Macromedia Flash appeared on sites such as Eircom.net and Examiner.ie. “Video is the same idea,” says George Thomas, media analyst with Ican. Though he confesses to being “a bit sceptical” about the VC, he adds that he would be open to experimenting with the full-page format.

Ican has worked with Unicast before on some ad campaigns and it already uses technology developed in-house to stream video in smaller web ads. “Our technology can detect your bandwidth and show the video based on the speed of connection,” says Thomas. According to Thomas, the VC doesn’t present any technical issues. “I’d like to see the initial reaction, but we’d be open to trying it out.”

However Forrester Research doesn’t think the format will gain much traction in the market, at least not in the way it’s currently been proposed. The analyst firm makes the obvious point that the way we interact with TVs and the web are fundamentally different. “TV ads online don’t make sense for consumers,” it declares. “Television ads are designed for that medium’s entertainment-focused environment and consumers’ passive mindset. Online, consumers are more actively engaged in the content and they reject interruptive ad formats such as pop-up adverts, so a 30-second interruption is too long.”

An estimated 30pc of TV watchers either leave the room or pay no attention to ads, which leads Forrester to believe that a similar figure will avail of the VC’s ‘close’ button.

Still, on the basis that the glass is half full, advertisers will surely draw comfort from the fact that Forrester’s scenario still leaves a potential 70pc of viewers in place. Add to that the long-awaited uptake of broadband and the VC may have timed its arrival just right.

By Gordon Smith