It's been four-and-a-half years since Unilever Bestfoods pioneered the use of interactive TV (iTV) in advertising with a Chicken Tonight execution on Sky Digital. With the airing of Sky's 500th interactive campaign last week, as well as the belated entry to iTV of Five, proponents of the medium believe it is finally breaking into the mainstream.
Sky hailed July as a bumper month, with 32 iTV campaigns, including 11 for car manufacturers. It is predicting annual revenue growth of 30%-40% for the next two years.
But finding hard data to support this optimism is near-impossible. BARB does not measure viewing of interactive areas. Nor are there any independent calculations, through Nielsen Media Research, of advertiser spend on iTV.
Broadcasters, agencies and clients jealously guard what research there is, for fear of alerting rivals to their success.
Consequently, iTV remains something of a mystery to most advertisers outside the motor, finance and travel sectors, which account for the bulk of the activity. Their executions largely focus on direct response - meaning they can calculate their return on investment without recourse to independent measurement - yet broadcasters and agencies agree that the future of iTV lies in brand advertising, not least because it is far more profitable for them.
Perceptions of iTV as purely a direct-response mechanism is an irritating misconception, says Peter Edwards, managing director of Starcom Motive. 'Advertisers need to realise that iTV's real opportunity lies in entertaining as well as informing,' he argues.
Edwards cites Honda's 'Cog' campaign as an example of how the medium can work. 'Honda took its 30-second commercial on to iTV with several minutes of entertaining extra footage,' he explains. 'This resulted in a fundamental shift in brand consideration and likeability measures.'
Other brand advertisers have conducted similar experiments. Adidas now extends all its activity on to iTV. For the campaign starring Jonny Wilkinson and David Beckham, its iTV activity included humorous footage not shown in the ads to extend viewers' interaction with the brand. Volvo has used iTV to show 10-minute documentaries, while Kit Kat has developed iTV games.
One based on the chocolate brand's 'Salmon' TV ad attracted 500,000 participants, who spent an average of 13 minutes playing it.
These case studies demonstrate that iTV gives advertisers the chance to engage viewers exclusively with their brand in a cluttered TV environment.
However, many believe the television industry is not doing enough to promote the opportunity.
Five expects to run 100 iTV campaigns over the next 12 months, but the channel's interactive business controller, Damon Letzer, admits the medium is being held back by the lack of industry-wide marketing. 'We need to work together to demonstrate that iTV is not just about direct return on investment,' he says.
No amount of case studies can address the fundamental client concern that the medium lacks robust measurement metrics. Letzer says BARB has 'work in progress' to establish a form of iTV viewing research. Danny Meadows-Klue, chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), claims an open offer has been made to broadcasters to join the IAB audit that measures interactive adspend on the internet, but it has not been taken up. 'They have a great story to tell, but they're holding back on telling it,' he says.
Some in media agencies blame a lack of enthusiasm among creative agencies for brand advertisers' reluctance to experiment with iTV. 'The medium is pushed by broadcasters and media agencies, but it is not a heartland for creative agencies,' says Toby Hack, OMD UK's head of interactive TV.
On the creative side, there is also an issue with the two competing hosting platforms, Zip TV and Sky. Zip TV was launched a year ago by a consortium of 11 advertisers, including Procter & Gamble, Unilever and BT, to offer choice to iTV advertisers. Its platform is used exclusively by Channel 4 for iTV ads, but by no other broadcasters. This means that advertisers have to create ads in two different iTV formats if they want to run across all terrestrial channels.
Furthermore, internet aficionados claim iTV's long-term growth could be stymied by developments in broadband technology. 'Broadband will have the speed to run full-motion video, matching TV's creative standards but offering more interactive opportunities,' says Meadows-Klue.
But John Murray, joint managing director of PHDiq, plays down the broadband threat. 'TV is a different viewing environment to the internet,' he says.
'It allows you to move seamlessly from a 30-second spot ad to an extended version in high-quality video. Broadband will be successful in its own environment, and there may be convergence with iTV at some point, but we're a long way from that.'