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Unilever Bets on Interactivity

Posted by Mort Greenberg on May 18, 2008

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Company Steps Up
‘iTV’ Ads in a Bid
To Engage Viewers
May 14, 2008; Page B13

As marketers descend on New York this week to place their bets on network TV’s fall season, Unilever is making a sizable wager in a different direction: interactive TV.

[Jon Stimmel]

Interactive-TV ads, in which consumers use the remote control to request a brochure or call up more information about a product, have been slow to gain traction among marketers. Advertisers love the prospect of getting consumers more engaged in commercials but haven’t been eager to deal with the hurdles that are part of getting deals done. In order to have their ad campaigns have a national footprint, advertisers have to strike deals with a long list of cable and satellite providers around the country.

Despite those obstacles, Unilever, a consumer packaged-goods company, is plowing ahead. The company has locked in commitments for interactive TV-ad deals with Comcast and DirecTV Group for this year. The deals will involve about 20 different iTV ad campaigns for brands such as Degree deodorant and Bertoli. Unilever also is negotiating on deals for next year, in its first-ever upfront-like marketplace for iTV ads.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Jon Stimmel, director of media investment for Unilever in the U.S., and Jacqueline Corbelli, chief executive of BrightLine Partners, a small firm that specializes in iTV advertising, about Unilever’s forays into iTV marketing and the problems that continue to face advertisers. Below, are some excerpts.

The Wall Street Journal: How did you end up doing an upfront for iTV?

Mr. Stimmel: With some of the test work we’ve done with BrightLine, we saw some pretty interesting data as far as consumers’ willingness to interact with our content. So we wanted to make it part of our digital-marketing strategy. It was kind of merging the two mediums that we use pretty robustly: online, with the ability to interact with consumers and establish a dialogue, and TV, which is a great viewing experience for content of all kinds. We really wanted to drive our rules of the road as opposed to waiting for an industry to catch up and have them dictate the terms of our agreements. We want the media companies to recognize what they need to do to make this a viable advertising medium.

WSJ: What hurdles does this sector need to overcome before becoming a real advertising medium?

[Jacquie Corbelli]

Ms. Corbelli: Much of it is the fragmentation and the fact it’s not turnkey or simple enough to figure out how these platforms can be exploited from a national standpoint for advertisers. Advertisers are inundated by the providers with individual ad solutions, and it can only make sense if an advertiser can get a single solution across different companies. A lot of these companies don’t understand this. There are so many companies that can offer TV viewers the ability to push a button to interact with the content on the TV screen such as Dish, Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Cox, TiVo, DirecTV and Charter. They are all interested in adopting a standard as long as the standard is theirs.

WSJ: Unilever has been in this space for several years. When did you first start?

Mr. Stimmel: We did our first test at the end of 2005 for the Axe brand. Then we wanted to investigate this space more, so we drove a couple of tests to understand what our capabilities were outside of the male [demographic].

WSJ: What was the turning point for Unilever in deciding to go from doing iTV in test phase to making it a legitimate part of your marketing mix?

Mr. Stimmel: For me a turning point was the “Spraychel” campaign for “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” in 2006. (Unilever ran on several cable video-on-demand channels a seven-part animated series that spoofed a soap opera. Set in a refrigerator, the series followed the plight of a curvy talking bottle named “Spraychel.”) We put it online and we were promoting it, and it had somewhat of a following. I didn’t know how it would play on iTV next to actual TV content. Seeing the amount of time people would spend watching and tuning into each episode was amazing. And the click-through rates were astounding.

Ms. Corbelli: People were spending six and seven minutes watching the episodes. What really resonates in the current economic environment is the click-through rates we are getting on iTV programs far surpass the ones we get online.

CW Presents Lineup

The CW presented its fall programming lineup to advertisers Tuesday, introducing only three new shows amid poor ratings performance in the last year and skepticism among executives over whether the network will ever be successful.

To complement its buzzy but low-rated teen soap, “Gossip Girl,” about rich kids in New York City, the network will add “90210,” an updated version of the 1990s prime-time hit soap about rich kids in California, “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Also on the schedule are “Surviving the Filthy Rich,” a drama about rich kids in Palm Beach, Fla., and the reality show “Stylista.”

The lineup will launch the first week of September, earlier than most other broadcast network shows. It will kick off what many see as a make-or-break season for the CW. The network’s season-to-date ratings are about 23% lower this year than last year.

Write to Suzanne Vranica at


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