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Ad Portals: Will Viewers Tune In?

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NEW YORK In the next few weeks, Honeyshed, the much-awaited celebration of advertising as culture backed by David Droga, will begin testing the site he's described as "QVC meets MTV."

That site, which hopes to connect brands with consumers through a mix of branded entertainment, long-form commercials and social networking, joins a host of new sites from media companies that are trying to accomplish the same goal through popular TV spots. The destinations are all built on the notion that advertising has always been an integral part of popular culture—and should be celebrated as such. But in an era where ad avoidance is a critical issue for brands, the question remains: Do people want to visit sites just for the ads?

NBC Universal certainly believes so. Last week its USA Network subsidiary announced it would in early 2008 launch Didja.com, a portal that will collect new and classic TV spots, along with other brand content, such as movie trailers and short films.

"We do believe that when consumers want the advertising messages, they do seek them out and do watch the commercials," said Chris McCumber, svp, marketing and brand strategy at USA Network.

Maybe, but just as every day can't be Sunday, every day can't be Super Bowl Sunday. Some see the sites as signifying advertising's continued preoccupation with TV commercials at a time when digital media is opening up new ways to reach consumers in more engaging and effective ways.

"I fully respect the notion that the best commercials attain the status of cultural reference points, and more than that, they're art," Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo wrote on his blog. "But does that really call for a destination site that sounds like it's going to bury the very best amongst, well, every other commercial ever made? I'm kind of doubting it."

In both cases, however, any advertising success will need audience interest in ads as content in their own right. There is some evidence to support that. Blender maker Blend-Tec has created a series of popular videos showing the company's blenders obliterating different objects. Its video blending the iPhone has been watched nearly 1.7 million times and ranks as the seventh most popular video of the month on YouTube.

For the past year, Turner has operated VeryFunnyAds.com, a digital spinoff of its popular TBS show World's Funniest Commercials, starring comedian Kevin Nealon counting down the top ads of the year. The site expects to draw 75 million video views when its one-year anniversary arrives in October.

TBS is running standard ad placements on the site for the likes of Pine-Sol, All-State and Sonic. NBCU is not charging advertisers for putting their spots on Didja; instead it's on the hunt for 5-10 brands to buy brand sections on the site, which will aggregate their commercials, include extra social networking features and provide links to buy products or download coupons. Honeyshed's business model is to charge brands based on how long people engage with the content.

While he declined to specify how much extra revenue the site has produced, Ken Schwab, svp, programming at TBS, said the site was successful, and TBS plans to expand the site with new types of ad content.

"If we focus it on funny commercials, it perfectly emanates from the TBS brand, which is about funny content," he said. "It's a clear consumer message of what you'll be getting."

From outlines of its creators, Honeyshed is taking a different approach, relying less on TV commercials to draw in brand fans. Droga5 executives declined to discuss the portal's launch, but in the past Droga and CEO Andrew Essex have painted the site as a way for brands to openly connect with consumers. Announcing the venture at Microsoft in May, Droga said, "People love brands that are relevant to them." Honeyshed, he said, would not be a place for TV spots, but instead would harness several online trends—user-created content, branded entertainment and social networking—to create the digital version of the shopping mall, a place where brand fans can go celebrate them.

Just as Honeyshed plans to go beyond simply posting TV commercials online, so too has a Yahoo! effort that builds "brand universes," bringing together user-generated content and editorial for what the company calls "passion brands." Since it kicked off last fall with a profile site for the Nintendo Wii, Yahoo! has built a handful of what it hopes will be 100 brand universes for other hot-button brands in the entertainment and gaming space, including Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Grand Theft Auto.

The various approaches will succeed or fail only if they make the leap advertisers have long sought and treat their messages as content. "Advertising should be treated as entertainment," said McCumber. "We know people love commercials."