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09 Oct 2006

One of the more fascinating books I read in university many moons ago was 'The Hidden Persuaders' by Vance Packard, which described the evolution of the 'science' of advertising (as of 1957, when the book was published) and the role of techniques like motivational research, psychological tactics and subliminal messages in making ads more effective. One reason the book stuck with me was because at the time I read it, I was already aware of social critics complaining about the growing dominance of advertising in media - how TV shows were getting shorter and radio stations were playing less music in favor of longer ad breaks, and how the majority of newspapers contained ads, not news. Then there was the debate over product placement in films, the use of pop music in commercials, the development of TV shows that were essentially ads for toys, and other ways in which ads were invading our personal space.

The debate has only grown since then. By the turn of the century, the Wall Street Journal reported that more and more magazines were allowing advertisers to dictate content. Product placement has extended from films and TV shows to comic books and even novels. (I'm not kidding - companies like Ford Motor Co, Bulgari and Proctor & Gamble have bought their way into novels in recent years.) The concept of building brands as a lifestyle has been tied to the debate over globalization via works like Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' (which I also read and found fascinating). And then there's the Internet, which among other things gave us pop-up ads and spam.

Given all that, you'd think I would be the first to cringe and complain over the idea of ads becoming more pervasive. Which they will be.

But I'm not. This is partly because I like ads - or at least the good, clever ones. And they are out there. To me, they're forms of mass-market surrealist art that are often ten times more imaginative than the content they pay for. The other reason is that I'm too fascinated by the technology driving new advertising formats.

Hey you "&brkbar; yes, you "&brkbar;
Take, for example, the BluScreen, a 'smart advertising display' that decides what ad to show based on whoever walks by scanning their cell phone or PDA via a Bluetooth link, and then selecting the best ad it thinks is suitable to the user. If it detects multiple phones, it selects the ad likely to have the broadest appeal among the users. More interestingly, according to New Scientist, it remembers what ads it has shown to the owner of that cell phone in the past and endeavors not to repeat the same ad twice to the same person.

The idea of using a person's cell phone as a demographic identifier is all the more significant because of the potential evolution of mobile advertising. Search engine companies like Google and Yahoo are getting into the mobile space because they know that mobile operators are sitting on a goldmine of user data. Cellcos log every single event that happens on their network, and once they are able correlate that data into user profiles in real-time, search engines can deliver sponsored links on a level of personalization - and localization, once location-based services become more widespread and accurate - that they can't realize with desktop browsers today. Amazing.

In theory, anyway. The inevitable backlash over user data and privacy is likely to limit the amount of detail that could be used to build up demo profiles on everyone's mobile devices.

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