Mars Explores AOL’s Boundaries

America Online and Mars’ Masterfoods USA are pushing the online service’s advertising boundaries in a promotion of M&Ms “Great Color Quest”.

The effort, launching Wednesday, will feature AOL’s first rich media Welcome Screen and its first coordinated multi-screen “takeover.”

The rich media portion appears in conjunction with the user’s Welcome Screen, which appears when users log on. Black and white M&M candies roll across the screen followed by an M&Ms bag. The bag falls over and opens to reveal one of the M&Ms characters driving a Volkswagen Beetle — one of the prizes in the promotion. The creative will appear Wednesday and on March 11, the final day of the promotion.

AOL had been fairly slow to adopt rich media, partly because of the technical difficulties of working within the proprietary “Rainman” format on which the service’s pages are based. Recently, AOL has moved forward in the area, forging a tight relationship with rich media vendor Viewpoint. Demonstrating its rich media capabilities is key for AOL, especially as more Internet users adopt more rich media-friendly broadband connections. Additionally, publishers can usually charge advertisers a premium for the richer creative units.

This most visible commitment to rich media advertising comes just as AOL works to engineer a turnaround, amidst a major shake-up in its ad sales leadership. Interactive marketing executive VP Lisa Brown departed last week after only eight months on the job.

The “Great Color Quest” promotion’s premise is that the M&Ms chocolate candy characters woke on January 1 to find they’d lost their colors. In conjunction with the promotion, most bags of M&Ms will be black and white and filled with black and white candies. Now the characters, and presumably all fans of M&Ms, are working to help find the colors.

Only six bags — one for each color of M&Ms — will be distributed with colored M&Ms inside. People who get these bags, which are filled with M&Ms of one color, win a Volkswagen Beetle of that color, a trip to Los Angeles and $20,000.

Much of the creative highlighting the promotion uses black and white — with a little color thrown in for contrast. Offline elements include national television, radio and print advertising. Masterfoods USA has also launched a mini-site at www.mmsgreatcolorquest.com to explain the promotion.

“Our online promotions can bring together the existing offline marketing elements while leveraging AOL’s interactivity and extensive community to drive even deeper consumer involvement and participation,” stated Ted Leonsis, vice chairman and president of AOL.

The other innovation for AOL, coordinated multi-screen ads, will occur whenever one of the coveted colored bags of M&Ms is found. Creative will appear simultaneously on multiple windows on the AOL service announcing the discovery of each colored bag, and urging users to try to find the others.

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