Ads Give Moviegoers Chance to Interact

Cinema is the oldest mass audio-visual medium. It is also as passive as media consumption gets. The imaginative application of — you guessed it — digital technology by marketers may change this.

A deal struck earlier this month between Verizon Wireless and cinema-advertising network Screenvision combines mobile and social-networking applications to test an interactive polling program in American movie theaters. “In-cinema advertising gives us an opportunity to create a dialogue with the audience who is there, present and ready to be entertained,” said Lou Rossi, director of advertising and sponsorships at Verizon Wireless.

According to the Cinema Advertising Council, the sector is one of the fastest growing in paid media. Overall, cinema ad revenues saw a double-digit increase last year, jumping nearly 19 percent. Reported revenue, as tabulated by law firm Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., was $540 million in 2007, compared to $456 million the previous year. These figures do not include the interactive components, as they were launched this year.

Advertisers are taking advantage of the full moviegoing experience, from theater lobbies to concession stands, producing a sizeable growth in integrated campaigns. “[This] can, literally, double or triple the impact a brand can make on the movie-goer,” said Stu Ballatt, president and chairman of the CAC.

Until now, theater owners have had an understandable aversion to any ad campaign that would see moviegoers using their cell phones during pre-show entertainment, said Kerry Perse, director of digital relationship marketing at Horizon Media. “What I find to be interesting is the rapid change of mind-set of the cinema owners: They really have done a 180 from where they were,” said Perse.

It’s a welcome development for Screenvision and direct competitor National CineMedia, which are seeking to boost revenue by delivering better customer engagement in the form of livelier pre-show entertainment.

Screenvision and Verizon Wireless rolled out their polling program last Friday in movie theaters in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The spots ask audiences questions related to their musical preferences, and results appear on the screen. Participation is possible across all handsets and carriers. Also featured was a Verizon-branded short film directed by Spike Lee that posed content questions to the audience. Results were unavailable at press time.

One goal is to keep consumers engaged long after the final credits roll. “What you start to do is you raise the engagement level of your moviegoer,” said Mike Chico, evp of sales at Screenvision. “So, you have people at the very rudimentary stage who are gaming or polling and the next step would be to ask, ‘Would you like to learn more about our product and enter our rewards program?'”

NCM also has begun to test interactivity in theaters. In March, it partnered with the Brand Experience Lab, a research and development company focused on emerging technologies, to create interactive gaming for its FirstLook, pre-show program.

NCM is testing AudienceGame, in which movie crowds act as human joysticks to collectively control the gaming elements on the screen, thanks to motion-sensor technology installed in the theater. It hopes to launch the program by early next year, at which time advertisers will be attached.

The intent is to create a “well-planned, well-calculated interactive component that enhances the experience, is a lot of fun and doesn’t get in the way of the [bigger] picture –no pun intended,” said Clifford Marks, NCM’s president of sales and chief marketing officer.

One of Brand Experience Lab’s first tests, separate from its deal with NCM, took place last year with MSNBC.com. The online news organization was looking to create some buzz around its first brand campaign, “A fuller spectrum of news” and paired with BEL to create NewsBreaker Live, which it refers to as the “first interactive cinema crowd game.” Launched with the summer 2007 release of Spider-Man 3, NewsBreaker Live used similar motion-sensing technology to create a game in which the audience caught falling news headlines to win points as a group.

Catherine Captain, vp of marketing for MSNBC.com, said the site’s strategy was to align with blockbuster movies to capture an audience already in a cheerful mood. Measured results showed 71 percent unaided recall of MSNBC.com as the sponsor of the game, according to Captain. Other measurements indicated 78 percent of moviegoers played the game and 93 percent wanted to see more games being played in theaters. Another 93 percent said they would prefer to play a game than watch a commercial before show time.

“We believe that interactivity will enhance the moviegoing experience, offer brands an interesting way to engage consumers and create a fun atmosphere in the cinemas,” said NCM’s Marks. “We are hopeful that it will bring incremental media dollars to the medium too, but it is too hard to project the financial viability of these types of new products until we learn more and see how consumer reaction is to the ideas we bring them.”

Added Horizon’s Perse: “I think it will definitely drive ad sales. I could imagine it changing the pricing models with a premium for interactive campaigns. The cinemas that support this functionality would have higher rates and the demand for available inventory would become extremely competitive.”