EarthLink Scores With Virtual Character Ad Starring U.S. Olympic Volleyball Contender

Last week, eMarketer predicted steady growth for online ad spending. Among the driving factors as reported by MediaDailyNews: more rich media ads as a result of broadband penetration, and the Olympics ad blitz. In a way, a new EarthLink campaign acts as a tangible example of the research firm's prognostication.

The innovative campaign features U.S. Volleyball Olympic contender Misty May and promotes EarthLink's High Speed Internet Service. While May battles away on the beach in Athens, her likeness as displayed in a far less sweaty, animated form can be seen on sites such as About.com and Internet service buyer's guide, The List.

"As a pro beach volleyball player, I know speed--and so does EarthLink," declares May's avatar character, who touts EarthLink's spam, pop-up, and spyware blocking capabilities.

Developed by ad agency Freestyle Interactive using Oddcast's VHost virtual character technology, the campaign launched July 22 and is set to run through August 31. According to Adi Sideman, CEO of Oddcast Inc., the campaign features two creatives that are displayed mainly in the large 250x250 box format. Sideman says that millions of the Misty May ads have been served, and thus far the click-through rates have reached as high as 20 percent. Employing virtual characters in advertising remains a novel approach. Affirms Sideman: "Any avatar generates great click-throughs...people pay attention." He adds: "This is the first VHost campaign tied to very hard advertising ROI."

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To morph May into avatar mode, her likeness and movements were mapped using the Flash-based VHost technology. Her voice was recorded and synched to her avatar's lip movements. "In the case of Misty May," notes Sideman, "we put in more detail for a custom mouth." Upon rollover by the user's cursor, ad audio is initiated and can be muted if desired. And as the user moves his mouse within the ad, May's eyes can follow along.

This is not the first time Oddcast's software has been applied to create online celebrity doppelgangers, or even to revive well-known figures. The horror master himself, Stephen King, uses his VHost impersonator to update news on his official Web site; RCA Records uses the technology for its interactive Elvis Presley site, The Virtual Elvis; and Discovery Channel has used it for a trivia game hosted by an Albert Einstein lookalike.

Soon, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie will join the virtual character ranks. According to Sideman, Gillespie's VHost likeness will dispatch updates on GOP.com (featuring recordings of him via cell phone) from this year's Republican National Convention in New York.

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