This Ad's for You

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I am in full control of my bladder. Statistically, this is not surprising. The vast majority of my tattoo-sporting, option-cashing, nest-egging, twenty-something male demographic does not wear diapers. And we do not care about term life insurance, even if Ed McMahon himself tells us we should.

But one night last fall I found myself questioning my demographic identity. I know that as a male of a certain age, I'm supposed to watch one group of TV programs, drive a certain car, drink certain beverages. But there I was, messing up my profile by watching "Monday Night Football" (my demo) and flipping back and forth to "Ally McBeal" (not my demo). I might as well have been drinking a Bud Lite, smoking a Virginia Slim and reading Foreign Affairs.

I am the same person no matter what TV show I'm watching. I buy the same things with my credit card; I pick up the same foods at the same market every couple of weeks; and I have never and will never have that not-so-fresh feeling, thank you very much. If I'm watching the "Golden Girls" on Lifetime, I shouldn't have to see ads for Depends.

The future of interactive advertising is a bright and happy one, because it will reduce the probability of a feminine hygiene product ad showing up on my TV screen to roughly the same probability of my ever buying such a product, at least for my own use.

Because the future is not about the convergence of media, although there will be some of that going on. The future for interactive advertising is about the convergence of data.

Direct marketing is not a new phenomenon. Loyalty programs are everywhere. People more and more are getting used to the idea of trading personal information for discounts or other perks. Almost every supermarket chain will give you a card that tracks everything you buy while tying that purchase pattern to your zip code, gender, etc., in exchange for discounts.

Direct promotions, especially ones with wireless components, will only grow in importance. One area where we'll see this is the banner ad, that maligned tool of Internet advertising. To truly see where the banner is headed, we must first look at its beginnings.

Genesis

AT&T Corp. robbed me of my innocence. It's like I was handed an Apple (Macintosh Classic, of course) and bit down hard. It looked so shiny.

One day in 1994, I went to HotWired, as I did most days back then. There was a graphic asking, "Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will." I thought, "Hmmm, wonder what those crazy kids at HotWired have cooked up for me now," and my mouse drifted into that 468x60 space for the first time. I was taken away from HotWired, carried over to the AT&T site, and I entered the world of commercialized Web content. But as some of my net.idealism was stripped, I was also given a gift: free knowledge.

And, while I didn't know it then, free power: Steven Comfort was afraid of me, although we'd never met. Now VP-sales at eGroups, Mr. Comfort was then a media buyer at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, and he was involved in that first buy on HotWired. His biggest fear was that denizens of this nouveau-hippy Internet would protest, scream about -- perhaps even boycott -- the first major Internet advertisers.

But we were smarter than that. While we all believed, and many of us still do, that information wants to be free, we're willing to concede that it is also perfectly happy to be ad-supported. If AT&T was going to ensure that HotWired content continued to come our way, then so be it. Bring on the banner.

FLASH FORWARD

Today's banners aren't doing so well in the press department, with news outlets trying to be the first to publish the banner's obit. And probably trying a bit too hard.

"If the banner is dead, it's a very active corpse," says Peter Shield, European sales director for ad network 24/7.

Advertisers have a prime bit of real estate on Web sites. It's hard to imagine a newspaper with ads all over its front page, doing everything in their power to distract from the content. Yet that's what advertisers get on Web sites.

So what's next?

The banner will live on happily but start to do more in the same screen space. Banners will use more Macromedia Flash in the near-term. They'll use sound, better graphics and animation. And that will be fine for some marketers, which are using banners as a component of their branding campaigns. If you're a marketer with well-established brands, and you're looking to expand your reach, take your logo and slap that puppy all over everything. Sponsor some cool content on the sites of your choice, and use the Web to build customer loyalty.

If you want to go a step further and sell stuff through your banners, you've got some great technologies already in place. Banners can incorporate data in real time using Flash and Generator. MediaPlex's Mojo Works technology allows database content to be delivered to gif banners in real time. Today. Mojo can take data about stock and pricing from a warehouse, and as numbers go up and down, it changes the banner on all the sites it's running on at once.

Here's the prediction I'm most likely to regret making five years down the road: Banners on cell phones won't really take off. Which isn't to say that wireless won't be a great medium to reach consumers. But what we now think of as a banner will stay on Web sites.

ADS EVERY WHICH WAY

Here are some things we see coming as marketers figure out how to advertise in combinations of online, offline and sansline:

* Everyone will have some sort of wireless communication device. Some will have cell phones; some will have two-way pagers; some will have Palm-like devices; some people will have all of them. The marketers that will win in the coming years will be the ones that can communicate in all media at once.

* Marketers will offer incentives to consumers in exchange for personal data and the right to contact them in very personal ways. Consumers could be lured with free or discounted cell phone time or free wireless devices.

* Once consumers have opted-in, all sorts of targeted messages will reach them anywhere. E-mail will be an important medium for advertising, and not just for companies that want you to lose weight as you earn your diploma from home. "The irony is, e-mail has been in front of us for so long," says Mr. Comfort of eGroups.

The day is coming when global positioning systems embedded in pagers and phones will be the norm. Imagine your cell phone getting e-mail with a message like, "You're only a block from a Starbucks; stop in for a 20% discount on your latte." Starbucks will know that latte is your beverage of choice, that you'll want a grande skim decaf and that in the past a 10% discount hasn't worked, but you're a sucker for anything more than 15%. The data is out there, and marketers are only starting to figure out how to tap these resources.

* Interactive TV will bring the scariest advertising changes. When you can click on objects you see in shows and buy them, it's all over. Will any writer be able to control the setting of a show if every bit of clothing, every piece of music, every prop becomes salable?

Revelations

In this brave advertising future, a customer loyalty campaign for a car company might look like this: Your interactive TV will know that you are watching, no matter what the show. It will know what kind of car you own because you'll tell it for the free oil change you're offered in exchange. The oil change will be compliments of your TV provider, and it is good only at a certain oil-change company, which paid handsomely to be the official oil-change provider of the TV company.

You'll see a commercial from your current car company, which bought the right to show an ad to 10,000 folks who own the 2004 model. The ad will tell you your brakes need fixed at your nearby dealer, and will suggest that while you're there, you might want to test drive the new 2006. It's really great, you're told. You'll love it.

At about this same time, you'll get an e-mail from the dealer inviting you in and offering a coupon for brake replacement if you test drive the new 2006. The e-mail will include a link to the Web site about the new car.

Meanwhile, your Palm device will have an appointment beamed to it from the dealer RemindMe service you signed up for, noting that your brakes need fixing. It will check your datebook, see when you're free and suggest some times. If you click "OK," it will beam that info to the dealer, and your appointment will be booked. Or perhaps you'll get an e-mail on your cell phone instead.

Your relationship with the dealer is important to your dealership, which will make sure your life is simplified by remembering all this for you. All you have to do is be loyal in return. Is your privacy being violated? Not if it's all opt-in, right?

Yes, advertisers will know everything about their customers. Customers will be rewarded with targeted advertising, and the signal-to-noise ratio in advertising will decrease dramatically.

Everywhere you go, ads will find you. If you let them. But they'll be your ads -- for you and nobody else. Is that a good thing? Is that progress? I guess it just Depends.

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