NEW YORK: Until now major fmcg advertisers have been little more than occasional tourists in the promised land of interactive television – a medium largely eschewed by mainstream advertisers because of the daunting logistics in setting-up a national campaign.

In theory iTV is an advertisers' dream that enables engagement with cable and satellite viewers via their remote controls, allowing them to request product information, coupons or a brochure.

The big deterrent is the complexity of setting-up a national campaign via the nation's plethora of cable and satellite providers.

Unilever, however, encouraged by favorable test results, has decided to bite the logistical bullet with the help of BrightLine Partners, a small firm that specializes in iTV advertising.

The marketing giant has committed to around twenty interactive TV-ad deals with Comcast and DirecTVGroup in 2008, involving brands such as Degree deodorant and Bertolli pasta sauces and spreads. Unilever also is negotiating similar deals for 2009 at its first ever upfront-style marketplace for iTV ads.

Referring to the firm's iTV test campaigns, Unilever's USA director of media investment Jon Stimmel told the Wall Street Journal: "With some of the test work we've done with BrightLine, we saw some pretty interesting data as far as consumers' willingness to interact with our content. So we wanted to make it part of our digital-marketing strategy.

"It was kind of merging the two mediums [TV and online] we use pretty robustly: online, with the ability to interact with consumers and establish a dialogue, and TV, which is a great viewing experience for content of all kinds.

"We really wanted to drive our rules of the road as opposed to waiting for an industry to catch up and have them dictate the terms of our agreements.

"We want the media companies to recognize what they need to do to make this a viable advertising medium."

The problem, said BrightLine ceo Jacqueline Corbelli, is media fragmentation. "Advertisers are inundated by the providers with individual ad solutions, and it can only make sense if an advertiser can get a single solution across different companies. A lot of these companies don't understand this.

"There are so many companies that can offer TV viewers the ability to push a button to interact with the content on the TV screen such as Dish, Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Cox, TiVo, DirecTV and Charter. They are all interested in adopting a standard as long as the standard is theirs."

Asked the WSJ reporter: "What was the turning point for Unilever in deciding to go from doing iTV in test phase to making it a legitimate part of your marketing mix?"

Stimmel fingered the fulcrum as the 'Spraychel' campaign for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! in 2006.

"We put it online and we were promoting it, and it had somewhat of a following. I didn't know how it would play on iTV next to actual TV content. Seeing the amount of time people would spend watching and tuning into each episode was amazing. And the click-through rates were astounding."

For Corbelli the clincher was that "people were spending six and seven minutes watching the episodes". But her final words are perhaps the most significant of all – and likely to send icy shivers down the spine of the Internet Advertising Bureau.

"What really resonates in the current economic environment is the click-through rates we are getting on iTV programs far surpass the ones we get online."

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff