The Interactive Commercial, Coming Soon to a TV Near You


Jessica Brown



A
teenager is sprawled in front of a television set, remote control in hand. Her
show has just been interrupted, for the third time in a half-hour, with an ad
for Prada women’s wear. This is hardly a surprise, Prada is her favorite
brand-name and somebody out there certainly knows it. Along with the ad spots,
the set of her program has been digitally remastered to include items like
shopping bags in the background featuring the names of stores which carry the
Prada line, and Prada logos plastered across T-shirts worn by some of the cast
members (the teenage boy next door is watching the same program, but he is
seeing ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Sony products instead). Our fictional
teenager is immune to the siren call of Italian fashion on this particular
afternoon, but that might not stop her from noticing that one of the actors is
wearing a pair of Nike sneakers she really likes. Using the remote like a
mouse, she clicks on the sneakers’ image causing the Nike website to pop up.
Just one more click and the item is purchased since a shared advertiser
database has already stored most of the necessary information, such as her
size, favorite colors, and credit card number. 
Best of all, though, there is no need for her to stop watching TV while
she shops. Her program continues to play in a window in the corner of the
screen throughout the entire transaction. Once her attention returns to it she
may or may not notice that some of the original ads have been replaced by new
ones.

This
might sound like an episode of the Jetsons (one with heavy underwriting by the
Master Card corporation), but, in fact, it’s a very common scenario used by
computer, advertising, and entertainment industry gurus to explain the
applications of digital television technology–technology that already exists
and may be commonplace in most living rooms within the next few years.

Television
is currently in the middle of a wide-scale change. For the last 50 years TV
networks have broadcast signals in essentially the same way, via
electromagnetic waves. This system is known as analog broadcasting. Within the
past few years, however, stations have begun a slow transition to broadcasting
in a different kind of signal; a signal transmitted in the language of
computers. This system, known as digital broadcasting, represents a
technological improvement over analog television in several ways. Digital
television (DTV) pictures can be sharper and more vibrant, for starters. This
facet of DTV is commonly known as high-definition television (HDTV) and is the
part of the changeover to digital that has so far garnered the most press
attention. DTV can do more than deliver nicer pictures, however. It represents
the logical marriage of TV and Internet technology and essentially portends
television that can do the same things a computer can.

For
starters, instead of a fixed signal that travels just one way, from the
broadcaster to the viewer, the digital format allows for the transmission of a
two-way signal. This means that DTV shows can be interactive. Thus, we may
soon start to see TV programs which allow viewers to pause, rewind or
fast-forward action, surf between television and the Internet (although the
differences between those two mediums will probably begin to be less and less
relevant), or click on hyperlinks “embedded” in each show to download
related information, or buy product tie-ins. Although only a small subset of
the population currently has the ability to get DTV (it can only be viewed
with a special kind of television or with a set-top decoder that makes a
regular television DTV compatible), TV stations in the country’s largest
viewing markets have already begun transmitting pilot digital broadcasts.

PBS,
for instance, has produced a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright that prompts
the viewer to choose from a list of buildings designed by the architect, and
then gives her a virtual "tour" of that property. The creators of
“Baywatch” have offered somewhat less educational fare with an episode
embedded with links that enable viewers to surf to a gallery of
behind-the-scenes photos of the show’s actors, browse through Mitch (David
Hasselhoff) and Neely’s (Gena Lee Nolin) “wedding album,” or, perhaps most
importantly, order “Baywatch” merchandise by entering credit card
information.

Because
DTV could also offer viewers the option of fast forwarding through commercials
entirely, a lot of advertisers have expressed concern that the new TV’s will
make the traditional 30-second ad spot obsolete; a fear that industry experts
have hastened to allay. More likely, says Karen J. Bannan of the online
publication ZDnet, is that advertisers will no longer be "limited"
to "static ads that are broadcast every seven minutes, but will be able
to market their wares constantly." Most of the models for DTV advertising
have been borrowed from the Internet. These may take the form of web’s
ubiquitous banner ads or the virtual “insertion” of products and corporate
logos into the sets of the shows themselves. They may also show up as
something that some manufacturers have already begun to express excitement
about interactive "infomercials." These would be ads that provide
not just a pitch, according to executives, but an "engaging
activity" as well.

"We
could have a Crisco Oil commercial where we give viewers the opportunity to
download light cooking recipes–that use Crisco Oil, of course" says Jim
Gosney, Procter & Gamble’s associate director of commercial production.
"Or imagine a Tide spot which could afford viewers the ability to
download a chart that shows how to get out tough stains, with Tide among the
techniques." Other suggestions for ways to take advantage of the
interactive potential of DTV ads abound. These may include car advertisements
which prompt the viewer to enter her favorite model and color of car and then
follow up with an ad featuring that vehicle, or pitches for cereal which offer
children the chance to take "quizzes" on good nutrition, or fill out
crossword puzzles using product-related words. 


What
the advertising industry is anticipating even more than the possibility of
constant, interactive advertising, however, is DTV’s potential to allow
broadcasters to do something that is already very common on the web; that is
to monitor the viewing and purchasing habits of individual users. While TV ads
currently target broad groups of viewers, such as "6 to
10-year-olds" or "college-age white males," depending on who
tends to watch any given show, technology similar to the Internet’s
"cookies" will make it possible for TV advertisers to track the
viewing behavior of each subscribing household, and thus send them all
different messages. As Steve Adams, chair and COO of the company that owns
SkyConnect Incorporated, a digital ad insertion provider, notes "The
standard way to advertise is to carpet bomb everyone with ads and hopefully
you’ll get some return. With one-to-one advertising, companies get a much
better return, because they already know that the customer they are selling to
is interested." This means that viewers who tend to watch cooking shows
may find themselves constantly seeing ads for kitchen utensils, families with
kids will get more commercials for minivans and Disneyland vacations, and the
child who never misses “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” could
continuously be targeted by ads for Power Rangers products all throughout the
Saturday morning viewing hours.

While
all of this may make manufacturers and advertising executives very happy, it’s
raised eyebrows among civil liberties advocates and parent’s groups. This is
because interactive personalized commercials represent both a potential threat
to viewer privacy, and an advertising medium which is profoundly more
manipulative than anything we’re used to currently.

At
best this might mean that you run the risk of having to explain why that
particular commercial starring Bob Dole is visiting your set quite as often as
it is or why you seem to be targeted for an unusual number of TV ads
concerning adults-only entertainment venues…but at worst? Who knows? How
many of us feel comfortable contemplating the fact that information about
which programs we watch will soon be feeding into the same corporate databases
that already track our magazine and newspaper subscriptions, credit histories,
Internet purchases, and what groceries we buy? Moreover, in a society whose
credit balances and bankruptcy rates are skyrocketing, how many of us feel
that we need more frequent and more effective television commercials? Who
among us, after all, would not be swayed by a television set that knows
exactly who we are, what we like, and when we’ll be watching…and that makes
our next purchase as easy as the press of a button?

Since
the interactive capabilities of DTV are so new, and have received relatively
little media attention, few lawmakers have really begun to think about the
types of measures needed to give DTV viewers some measure of privacy and
protection in the face of this new medium. One organization, People for Better
TV, a coalition of civil rights and public interest groups concerned about the
switch to digital broadcasting has, however, persuaded the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) to hold hearings on the public interest
obligations of digital broadcasters. The group has also issued a list of
recommendations for lawmakers including establishing controls on what types of
information broadcasters should be able to gather about viewers and limiting
the number of advertisements (targeted or otherwise) that may air during
children’s programming. "The good news," says Mark Cooper, Director
of Research for the Consumer Federation of America and PBTV coalition member,
"is that the FCC is now starting to look into the profound effect that
digital television will have on consumers. The bad news is that the horse is
already out of the barn–digital television is already broadcasting in most
major television markets. The FCC must move quickly to issue guidelines on
important consumer concerns, like privacy protection and overly aggressive
advertising."

Jessica
Brown is Assistant Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications
Policy, 818 18th St, NW, #505, Washington DC 20006; 202-887-0301; Fax:
202-887-0305; www.civilrightsforum.org.