Calvin Klein's latest ad campaign is an Internet soap opera that talks directly to you. JAMES SHERWOOD is impressed
Please. It's too much. Robert e-mailed from the red-eye flight to Paris. He's quit his job in New York. He's so impulsive and he drinks too much. Robert's daughter Anna thinks he's crazy and says she'd rather sleep in Central Park than move to LA with him. And as for Tia! You'd think she has enough trouble with her stalker ex from Seattle to think about an affair with Robert. Honey, my New York friends make Sex And The City look like The Brady Bunch.

If this sounds like pure soap opera, then you'd be right. My intimate e-mail buddies, Robert, Tia and Anna, are pulp fiction. They are cyberworld characters created by Calvin Klein perfume CKOne. Recently launched in an international TV and billboard campaign, the CKOne ads run with e-mail addresses for each character. E-mail them and they will reply individually anything from six to eight times a week with the news from New York.

This "virtual" campaign is spearheading the latest spate of ad-land boundary pushing, in which the brand hangs in the shadows and plays second fiddle to an experience which the consumer drives forward. Advertisers understand the implications of our fascination with interactivity and, as The Truman Show proved, more than ever we want to control the characters we are watching. CKOne is on message and just ahead of the digital revolution, which will allow us all to play fat controller with our television viewing. Soon we will be able to dictate story lines, change camera angles and alter the outcome of TV shows. But, by the time we get digital, we're already CKOne e-mail addicts. Tia's sly sign-offs, like "What harm can it do?", is a red rag to a bull for the Oprah/Ricki generation.

"The campaign is currently scheduled to run through 2000," says Calvin Klein Cosmetics UK PR Trudi Collister. "People want to know more and share more. It's a virtual drama played out through an advertising campaign." The campaign launched at the same time as the movie You've Got Mail in which - coincidentally - Tom Hanks wears Calvin Klein. "Timing has always been one of Calvin Klein's strengths," says Collister, rather understating the case.

"This is all about the fragmentation of the media," says creative director Robert Bean from advertising agency Banc. "You're able to engage people's minds for, what, 30 seconds, with a poster or a TV ad. What Calvin Klein is doing is engaging you in an ongoing e-mail dialogue which is a step forward from just accessing an Internet site. In commercial terms, you've got to ask if this is going to make the public buy the perfume or the bag. For now, that question is unanswerable. But at the very least CKOne is engaging your intelligence and putting the consumer in the driving seat."

Live sites on the Internet - with video cameras hooked up to the Net - are the way forward for advertisers riding the interactivity trend. Rumour had it that the London club Ministry of Sound played the secret CCTV tapes in the ladies' powder room live on screen in the VIP room. Truth or myth, Ministry has collaborated with Hugo Men and Hugo Women fragrances to produce a less voyeuristic and more profitable CCTV Internet live link. Click on to and you view edited video from the Hugo-logo'd ladies' powder room at Ministry.

The club calls it "Internet exhibitionism". Unlike security cameras, the CCTV link is signposted and the girls in the powder room are aware they are being watched - and, inevitably, perform for the camera. Depending on how you look at it, it's either a case of lighthearted punter-power, or insidious exploitation.

Ministry's Siona Ryan says, "The Internet has added an extra element of excitement to the bathrooms. And the girls are increasingly keen to hang out in the stylish Hugo Woman bathroom as an alternative chill-out zone. It's become like the kitchen at the party with the major subject of discussion being make-up, hairstyling and boyfriends."

Of course, the Hugo experiment will entice teenage boys who want a peek at the powder room girls. But the Ministry bathroom itself has been designed in Hugo's packaging colours by Met Bar interior gurus United Design, and Hugo branding is prominent. The Internet link associates Hugo with a clubby, hip context. So next time the boys - or girls - watching are passing a perfume counter, they think of wild clubbing nights drenched in Hugo.

It's about being one of the gang: becoming part of Hugoworld or CKOne New York high society. Pepsi is developing branded pagers intended to create a Pepsi "social animal" mentality. The pagers will send Pepsi information on special music events, chart information and lifestyle news to give the soft drinks brand youth kudos. It's another way of connecting with the consumer and inviting them into a more switched-on, inclusive club.

But it's the CKOne e-mail campaign that's breaking ground. The message of the original CKOne print campaign was unisex, multi-cultural and all inclusive, using models as diverse as Kate Moss and Quentin Crisp. In the traditionally exclusive perfume industry, Calvin Klein is the first to understand inclusiveness and make the connection with e-mail. No, you don't need to buy CKOne to become a part of the e-mail chain. But you'll be more inclined to look out for new characters on billboard, magazine spread or TV.

The copywriter behind the campaign, Brant Mau, promises up to nine more characters in the near future. We're gagging to hear from Anna's high school-stud Danny. And, as an exercise in consumer control, can suggest Brad Pitt for the part?