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An interactive ad for Ford showing at Cineplex theatres asks viewers with smartphones to choose whether they would rather follow 'him' or 'her.'

Interactive ads at the movies used to be so simple. The tune "Let's all go to the lobby" would play; an anthropomorphic bag of popcorn would urge audiences to chow down on one of his brethren; and visitors could vote with their feet by making a trip to the concession stand.

These days, interacting with the ads that screen before a movie theatre's feature presentation takes the kind of technology a singing soda pop never dreamed of. Since early December, audiences at Cineplex theatres in the greater Toronto area have been part of a trial for the movie chain, involving interactive ads powered by a Toronto-based company called TimePlay Inc.

Viewers who own smartphones such as a BlackBerry or an iPhone are prompted to either download an app or call a number that lets them be part of the marketing action. In an advertising spot for Ford, for example, viewers can use their phones to vote on whether they want to see more scenes with a female or a male lead.

It's all part of a push to take advantage of the captive audiences waiting for the movie to start, who may just be bored enough to actively engage with the ads in front of them. TimePlay taps directly into the growth of smartphones, and into marketers' desire to connect with consumers on a device that goes everywhere with them.

"Interactive advertising is definitely trending … it's something that advertisers have expressed interest in," said Robert Brown, vice-president of Cineplex Media. If the TimePlay experiment goes well, he said, there are plans to expand interactive ads to more Cineplex theatres across the country.

And it goes beyond the cinema, as well. QR codes, or quick response codes – those scrambled black-and-white boxes seen in the corner of magazine ads or on bus shelters for example – are popping up with more frequency.

"In contrast to TV watching, which is often passive, and [computer]activity, where you have an objective and an ad gets in the way, you can get people during dead time with a mobile phone," said Avi Goldfarb, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "That creates opportunities. … But it's with a big caveat: You need to motivate people to want to interact with you."

For most companies, this means integrating contests, coupons or other incentives to entice consumers to pick up their phones. Leading up to the 2011 Grey Cup, for example, the B.C. Lions released outdoor and print ads with QR codes that, if scanned, gave users a chance to win merchandise or tickets to a game.

But even executives at the companies that provide this technology acknowledge that most advertisers using mobile tools, such as QR codes, are doing it wrong.

"A QR code is not a magic bullet. It doesn't compel action any more than if you put a website address in the corner [of an ad] It's used poorly, in general," said Mark Binns, chief marketing officer at Vancouver-based Mobio Technologies Inc. – which provides its own codes and scanning apps and did the Lions campaign.

In the case of TimePlay's spots at Cineplex, an ad for Canon cameras provides just such an incentive – a coupon for those who participate in the onscreen game (in which audiences play with the app to reduce a photo's blurriness). Just over a month into the campaign, Canon has seen the coupons in use at its online store. According to Ford, which runs the other TimePlay ad, the car company saw nearly 18,000 downloads of the interactive app in the first month of the campaign.

"The success of it, we still have to wait and see," said Justin Lam, senior director of Canon Canada's consumer imaging group. The company was approached in the fall by Cineplex and TimePlay to be part of the test phase. Like other advertisers, Canon is also planning to increase its mobile marketing efforts. "You'll see more of that coming through 2012," he said.

One barrier to mobile marketing is that not everyone can participate. Using interactive ads requires a mobile device more sophisticated than a regular flip phone. Smartphone penetration is growing, with 40 per cent of mobile subscribers in Canada owning one. But that still means that fewer than half of the people who see an interactive ad are able to respond.

Research suggests that even among those who own a smartphone, not many choose to interact. QR codes require downloading the corresponding app to scan the barcode – and because there is no standard yet, that can mean multiple downloads for different codes on different ads. QR codes are useful because they make it easier for a consumer to find a company's website, to receive coupons and enter contests, or to watch exclusive video content. In the United States, only 15 per cent of smartphone users scan such barcodes, according to a report from analyst Melissa Parrish of Forrester Research.

"Marketers want to jump on a perceived bandwagon, and use the new thing, to be seen as progressive and innovative. But they need to be strategic," Ms. Parrish said.

Cineplex is TimePlay's first major cinema rollout, but company president Jon Hussman sees opportunities to extend the idea to movie trailers, other venues such as sports stadiums and eventually television advertising.

Still, perhaps the biggest barrier for mobile marketing is that most consumers have no idea how it works. Ms. Parrish of Forrester Research recalls watching a Wall Street professional take a photo of a QR code with his iPhone, then stare at the picture hoping for a revelation. TimePlay, too, is still teaching audiences how to interact.

In the audience at one theatre in Toronto this week, almost no one reached for a phone or appeared to be playing along when asked to vote on Ford's ad. Another audience, waiting to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, made its opinion on interactive ads very clear: They booed at the screen.