Downloading the Future of TV Advertising
With a plink and a plunk and 86 moving parts, Honda reminds the ad world of the value of great content — and teaches it something about the power of interactivity.
By John Battelle, July 2003 Issue
In April 2003, Honda U.K. debuted an extraordinary two-minute television advertisement called “Cog.”Through the simple act of releasing a remarkable television commercial onto the Web, the U.K. wing of automobile giant Honda (HMC) has unleashed something of a typhoon in the advertising business. Though it has yet to fully play out, Honda’s ad proves the value of content and could stand as a turning point in the history of the television spot — proof that interactivity won’t kill television advertising, as many are now predicting, but may instead be instrumental in saving it.
Back in April, Honda U.K. debuted an extraordinary two-minute television advertisement called “Cog.” Aired only in the United Kingdom, the film — and that really is the best term for it — is a Rube Goldbergian ballet, a synchronized dance of 86 distinct parts from a Honda Accord that roll, pirouette, and fly along the floor in a mesmerizing production of meticulously intended consequence. The spot begins with a sequence of three cogs rolling along a plank; one falls to the floor, and a cam shaft rolls, setting an exhaust tube slowly spinning, which knocks three precisely placed grommets down the slope of a hood, and so on. (Download the ad for yourself at Honda UK.)
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To watch this film is to want to watch it again, which is what I did, repeatedly, after a friend e-mailed me the link. Not only was the work beautiful, but it was advertising — it functioned in ways that television ads simply weren’t intended to function.
“Cog” made me think well of Honda, so the branding was effective. But more interesting was the way I came across it — through word of mouth — and the expectations I brought as I downloaded it: I was taking the action to view the message; it was my intent that drove the transaction. This ad was content I wanted, not a sales message I wished to ignore. The experience was peculiar — this isn’t how advertising models for television are supposed to work.
But work it has. Since the film made its debut on British television in April, Honda U.K. has been besieged by repeat viewers. As was its custom, Honda had already put the ad on its site; it was instantly blogged and Slashdotted. Every major paper in the United Kingdom wrote it up, noting its painstakingly analog production (filming required more than 600 takes) and unusual length. Traffic to the Honda site quadrupled; in the first few weeks, nearly 1 million people downloaded the film. By mid-May, the number was twice that — and millions more, no doubt, have seen the film as an e-mail attachment. The Honda marketing folks are clearly tickled by the response. “We think this campaign has managed to reposition Honda more toward the quality and sophistication of the European makers,” says Nigel Bobs, a marketing executive at Honda U.K. “We certainly had no idea it would take off like this.”
“Cog” reminds us of the power of great content, and it may well shift the tired debate regarding what many marketers deride as “vanity ads,” which capture awards rather than results. It proves that great content can be combined with intent-based marketing like direct mail or paid search. Imagine a film like “Cog” as the payoff to clicking a paid link for Honda or “buy car” on Google. Or as a downloadable promotion on a service like TiVo. In fact, Honda U.K. tested “Cog” on BSkyB’s fledgling interactive television system in England. Although a relatively small number of people saw the film, more than 10,000 viewers requested additional information on the Honda Accord. To get that kind of response through regular direct mail, Honda would have had to spend close to a million bucks. On BSkyB it spent about $32,000.
Could it be that “Cog” presages a time when the television spot evolves to an Internet-based format, courtesy of the fertile mix of broadband, search engines, and PVRs? Memo to advertising agencies: Pay attention to “Cog.” You can have your vanity ad and ROI it too.
John Battelle directs the business reporting program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He founded the Industry Standard and was a co-founding editor of Wired.
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