Hungry? Hit the remote

Britain's first interactive TV ad has hit our screens, but will it put us in control or just access our cash?
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The Independent Online

The certifiable, wing-flapping housewife who sang the cheerful ditty "I feel like Chicken Tonight" to the bemused delight of TV viewers everywhere is at last able to buy her Chicken Tonight without so much as moving from the confines of her comfortable suburban sofa. Or at least she can order a money-off voucher for it, thanks to the arrival of digital interactive television advertising in the UK, pioneered by the company that used the so-awful-it-was-fabulous commercial to promote its recipe sauces.

First aired yesterday (on Sky Digital satellite) and accessed via Open (a free interactive digital TV service available to all Sky Digital subscribers), it is being hailed as a turning point in TV advertising and the beginning of a sea change in the way people use their television sets.

Not only can viewers watch an advert, they can use the technology to request product information, take part in competitions or even make a purchase there and then. The Chicken Tonight advert, for its new Stir It Up brand, uses a typically zany narrative to get its message across. But at the same time a red button in the left-hand corner of the screen encourages viewers to "Press Here", offering them the chance to zap into Open's "Creative Kitchen" by using their remote controls. Here, again using their remotes, viewers can opt to peruse on-screen recipe suggestions (complete with video-clip instructions) or go direct to ordering a money-off voucher for Stir It Up. As Sky subscribers' personal details are already registered, there's no filling in on-screen forms.

Such interactivity is being touted as the Next Big Thing in e-commerce, being a more user-friendly form for transactions than PC-based e-commerce. The Henley Centre predicts that digital television will become the dominant channel for online transactions by 2008 and a survey by BRMB International says: "Online TV shopping growth could well outstrip the rise in PC e-commerce this year."

Already Open, which is backed by BSkyB, BT, HSBC and Matsushita, offers shopping, banking and e-mail services to the 2.6 million households subscribing to Sky Digital. The online element is delivered through the telephone line linked to the digital set-top box. Open, which launched last October, claims that nearly half Sky Digital's customers access it at least once a week, with at least eight million visits made before Christmas when peak sales hit £1m per week.

The lure of such technology for advertisers is obvious: the next logical step is the see-it-buy-it formula - not used by Chicken Tonight's manufacturers Van Den Bergh Foods because they felt being the first in the UK to dip its toes into digital interactive advertising was an exciting enough move for the launch of a new product.

However, such advertising is already well advanced in France and Scandinavia. Paula Byrne, the product development director at Open and the person in charge of the creative team making the advert, believes the Stir It Up campaign is nothing short of "a revolution in advertising". Other advertisers, she says, are waiting in the wings to join the interactive fray.

"Interactive advertising is only limited by the imagination of the agency working on it," she explains. "It can be anything from providing more information on, say, a particular type of car being advertised, or you could request a brochure. I imagine a lot of advertisers will use it for free prize draws or invitations to enter quizzes. It allows the user to take real control. I expect this to be massive."

She could well be right. According to Andrew Curry, associate director of new media at The Henley Centre, an experiment using analogue technology carried out by the JWT agency and cable company Videtron in 1996 showed that attention to the screen in interactive ads more than doubled compared with ordinary adverts. The trial, in 100,000 London homes, of a Kellogg's Frosties ad, allowed viewers to choose from a number of alternative scenarios for a surfing Tony the Tiger. For the eight to 14-year-old target group, recall of the ad as well as a desire to eat and buy Frosties increased significantly. But Mr Curry says the area is not without its difficulties, even beyond the barrier of the competing and bewildering array of softwares available for interactivity. It is, he says, perhaps a little too much to ask people to break from their football match or drama to learn about product details. "You are asking people to make an effort to share your commercial message. People don't necessarily want to do that."

And he warns: "Agencies are going to have to learn to be quite clever. There's so much noise in the marketplace and so many people asking you to do something as a consumer, there's still going to be a place for the good, old-fashioned, carefully crafted 60-seconds."