Ads That Can 'Speak' to Magazine Readers Are the Talk of the Industry

They're talking a page out of history.

That's right, talking. Two major advertisers, Texas Instruments and Absolut Vodka, have placed tiny computer chips in magazine ads that "talk" to unsuspecting readers. While the Texas Instruments ad recently bragged to some Business Week readers about technical advances at the company, the Absolut Vodka ad in the December issue of Vanity Fair will wish readers Merry Christmas in three languages--and toss in a Happy Hanukkah.

This is not idle chatter. There has been a race to produce the nation's first talking magazine ad. A Los Angeles company, Intervisual Communications, helped produce the first one for Texas Instruments. Until now, magazine ads have been able to pop out, light up and even play simple tunes. Next, celebrity voices are expected to begin chattering in these costly ads.

"Imagine Lee Iacocca's voice talking in a print ad about Chrysler's 7/70 protection plan," said James D. Richwine, president of the advertising sales and promotion division of Intervisual Communications Inc. "Where else could he make a 'personal' sales call for $4?"

About $4 each is the estimated cost of talking print ads. That's $2 for the special computer chip and $2 more for the production and placement of the ad. Absolut Vodka spent $1 million to reach just 200,000 Vanity Fair subscribers in California and New York. Texas Instruments spent slightly less than that at Business Week. Executives say the extremely high cost of these talking ads is about the only thing stopping them from turning local magazine stands into veritable Towers of Babel.

"Talking ads smack you right in the face," said Arnie Fishman, chairman of the marketing research firm Lieberman Research West. "They completely alter the environment from which print advertising works. They have tremendous impact because of their shock value."

But not everyone sees such a rosy future for these talking print ads. "Look how fast the scratch and sniff ads came and went," said Michael Ray, professor of marketing at Stanford University. "The novelty wears off--fast."

And even some of those in the business of making these ads frankly admit that the high cost will continue to keep most advertisers away. "We know this is a huge market, but only if the price drops considerably," said Christopher Krowell, president of Structural Graphics, which helped create the Absolut Vodka talking ad. "In most cases, advertisers won't spend $4 per ad for a voice."

Many experts agree, however, that these talking ads are so unusual that they will be hot items for some advertisers for at least the next few years.

And that makes Wally Hunt very happy. In 1963, his company produced the first cardboard "pop-up" ad to appear in a magazine. The ad for Del Monte products was a picture of a chuck wagon that popped up when readers opened a grocery trade magazine. Until then, Graphics International in Los Angeles had specialized in making so-called pop-up children's books.

About a decade later, he sold the company and founded Intervisual Communications, also in Los Angeles. That company produces nearly 70% of all the children's pop-up books in the world, Hunt said. More recently, Intervisual began making pop-up advertisements, including the famous Transamerica Pyramid ad that popped out of Time magazine in 1986.

But pop-up ads may already be somewhat old hat. And that is why Hunt's company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to develop print ads that can talk. For the Texas Instruments talking ad, his company made the plastic module and amplifier in which the silicon chip is enclosed.

"The only reason there aren't more people in this business is that it is fraught with terror," Hunt said.

He didn't say that lightly. Just a few years ago--when the technology was new--some "musical" print ads for one liquor maker wouldn't stop playing. And talking ads that fail to work properly can leave readers thoroughly confused.

Perhaps with that in mind, Intervisual Communications had inspectors check each of the 160,000 Texas Instruments talking ads three times before leaving the assembly plant in Mexico. Even then--no thanks, in part, to the rigors of the U.S. Postal Service--about four out of every 1,000 talking ads fail to talk, the company estimates.

In a few weeks, readers of Vanity Fair will receive talking Christmas greetings in their magazines--courtesy of Absolut Vodka. That ad is a joint effort of an Emeryville, Calif., company, Electronic Speech Systems Corp., which designed the voice-mimicking system, and Essex, Conn.-based Structural Graphics, which helped develop the technology to package it.

The ad says: "Absolut Vodka wishes you Merry Christmas . . . Buon Natale . . . Feliz Navidad . . . Happy Hanukkah."

"We have made our print ads play music, move and, now, speak," said Richard McEvoy, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Carillon Importers Ltd., the U.S. importer of Absolut Vodka. "We intend to go further."

How far? Well, he won't say.

But experts say talking ads may be just the beginning. "In the not-to-distant future, you'll open up your magazine, and it will talk to you specifically by name," said Jim Guthrie, executive vice president of the Magazine Publishers of America. "Imagine a magazine that says, 'Good Morning, Bruce, how'd you like to buy a Cadillac?' "

Similarly, experts say that so-called interactive talking ads will eventually ask questions out loud--and then direct readers to push specific buttons for individual responses. Intervisual Communications is working on a print ad for one major advertiser that will talk and flash lights at the same time.

Of course, all of this jabbering could backfire.

"Magazine publishers have to be very careful about using these kinds of ads," warned Ray, the Stanford professor. "If too many advertisers start doing this, you could really turn readers off. And at a minimum, you could be wasting your money.

"It will be perceived as intrusive after the novelty wears off," he said. "You buy a print magazine for other reasons than to have it talk to you."

L.A. Agencies Land Mexican Business

Two Los Angeles ad agencies went south of the border last week for new business.

HDM/Los Angeles picked up the estimated $4-million annual advertising business for the Los Cabos Tourism Board. The agency is also among a handful of competitors still vying for the $30-million Mexican National Tourist Council account, which is expected to be awarded later this month.

At the same time, Multi Media American, a Latino ad agency based in Claremont, picked up the $450,000 business for El Cid Mega Resort and the Mazatlan Hotel Owners Assn.

In an unusual move, however, Multi Media won't direct its ads toward conventional American tourists. Rather, it will try to persuade upscale Mexican-Americans "to return home" for a visit, said Mike Ramirez, president.

"Third- and fourth-generation U.S. Hispanics have been to Jamaica and they've been to Hawaii," said Ramirez. "We're saying, come back to Mexico."

Later this month, the ads--in Spanish and English--will be broadcast on Latino and Anglo radio stations in five markets, including Los Angeles. "Obviously," said Ramirez, "we hope to attract upscale Mexican-Americans."

HDM, meanwhile, will concentrate on attracting Anglo tourists. "Mexico is the place to be in the next 10 years," said Charles W. Reynolds, Jr., president of HDM/Los Angeles. HDM has the $10-million Acapulco Tourism account.

But HDM's most recent win, Los Cabos Tourism Board, will be a real test. The developing resort area in Baja--about a two-hour flight from Los Angeles--is not very familiar to most American tourists, who are more accustomed to visiting Mexican cities like Cancun and Acapulco. The area has fewer than 2,000 hotel rooms, but there are plans to triple that number within the next five years.

"It's like a Palm Springs on the ocean," said Reynolds. And to help get that message across, the agency has created several ads with catchy slogans. One says, "Tan your mind." The other is a poke at the competition: "The antidote to Club Med."

Skin Care, Perfume Accounts Awarded

If it smells good--or feels good--look for a Los Angeles agency to create ads for it.

Last week, Stein Robaire Helm was assigned a $5-million project by EPI Products for several new products in the skin-care category. And Rubin Postaer & Associates, which creates ads for Honda, won the account of Fred Hayman Beverly Hills, which recently began to sell the perfume "273."

The 1-year-old Stein Robaire now has nine clients and billings of more than $16 million. Such fast growth recently forced the agency to move to larger offices and to add five new staff members.

Meanwhile, Rubin Postaer faces an unusual marketing test with the Fred Hayman business--which had been by DDB/Needham Los Angeles.

Until now, Fred Hayman--who founded Giorgio and later sold it to Avon in 1987--has relied heavily upon his association with the famous Beverly Hills boutique in creating an image for his new company. Earlier this year, Hayman retained ownership of Giorgio's former 273 N. Rodeo Drive store and renamed it Fred Hayman Beverly Hills.

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