Nowhere to Hide

New Frontiers in Advertising

As consumers move away from traditional media, such as TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, advertisers are plotting new ways to track and categorize you via cellphones, social networks and even digital signs. Congress and Federal Trade Commission must do more to ensure that third-party marketers are more transparent about their methods.

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On New York’s Prince Street in late 2007, pedestrians heard a woman whispering, “Who’s there? It’s not your imagination,” as they passed a billboard that advertised “Paranormal State,” which was a then-new TV series on A&E about spooky encounters. Pedestrians likely were a little spooked to hear a disembodied voice speaking to them from out of the blue. What they probably didn’t realize was that seven stories above them, an audio spotlight beamed an invisible ray of sound at them.

Rémy Martin has used the same directional sound technology, which was developed by Holosonic Research Labs, to hawk cognac on the street, and retailer Best Buy has worked with the company on in-store advertisements.

These represent just the early stages of marketers’ attempts to penetrate your previously impervious personal space. In the next year or two, shoppers who wheel their cart past laundry products might hear sounds from nature that replicate the feeling of walking through a rainstorm, says F. Joseph Pompei, who is Holosonic’s president and inventor. The sound beams can be focused, so one day supermarkets might charge for acoustic advertising by the square foot.

Although Pompei admits that blindsiding consumers with sound might risk alienating them, he argues that the messages are easier to ignore and less intrusive than a loudspeaker. He also asserts that “somebody is going to try to do something that’s even more creepy” with directional sound. For instance, companies could use the audio spotlight to beam advertisements at people as they move past on a bike or in a car, he says.

In doing so, they could trip over a number of legal issues, says Joseph Rosenbaum, who is an attorney who helps to oversee the advertising practice at Reed Smith. He believes that the beams could be considered harassment and create a public disturbance.

Five years from now, much of advertising will seem familiar. Corporations still will hawk their products through TV ads, product placement, blogs and Web banners. But as society becomes more unhitched from traditional media and more attached to portable  devices, such as smartphones, advertisers will come up with new ways to reach us.
 
BEING FOLLOWED. The primary thrust of new advertising in the next 5 years will be location-based advertising—fine-tuned messages that are tailored to our individual tastes, habits and movements. Marketers for years have personalized the messages that they use to hawk their products and have harvested reams of personal data to target people. But now marketers are creating clever tricks for getting us to “opt in” to their messages by tapping into our love for online communications tools, such as Facebook, and cellphone applications.

“It’s really hard to ward off this advertising, because it happens invisibly, and it’s not convenient to shield yourself from it,” says Susan Grant of Consumer Federation of America.

Marketers will track us from location to location, thanks to new technologies that allow them to collect information about our behavior. Based on the information that we post on the Web, third-party companies will deduce what we like, where we’re going and how frequently we make purchases.

Eventually, your phone will buzz with ads that are based on the subjects that you discuss while you use Facebook and Twitter. A “smart” billboard will beam a message to your cellphone as you pass by. A digital sign at a store automatically will personalize its message at the moment that you approach a product.

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