COMING SOON TO A CAR NEAR YOU: ADS ON NAVIGATIONAL SCREENS

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The next major ad medium will be those navigational screens the luxury car makers are installing in their high-end models.

The navigation systems, moreover, are destined to become a key reason to buy a particular auto make, and car marketers will vie with one another to provide enhanced "concierge" services as part of the navigation setup-like the credit card companies are supposed to provide, but don't.

The navigation screens show you exactly where you are and the most direct route to where you want to go. They'll also tell you the locations of the nearest gas stations, ATM machines, hotels and restaurants. Some systems feed off of satellites and others use CDs to transmit road and location data.

It's inevitable that certain advertisers will want to participate in these new systems, and possibilities are endless. To cite one simple example, McDonald's Corp. could send out CDs to car owners with the locations of its outlets programmed into the route structure. Movie theaters will also want to show their locations. Press the theater icon and you'll get what movies are showing and when they start.

And think of the opportunity for hotels and resorts. They can not only pinpoint their locations, but also give descriptions of their facilities (spas, golf courses, skin diving, etc.) and rates.

The concierge service that some of the car companies include as part of the navigation system can take care of the hotel reservations right now of course, and they can do a lot more. It won't be long before the car companies try to outdo each other in providing exotic and exclusive services, such as hard-to-get theater tickets or sports events.

I've personally been disappointed in the help I've received from my American Express Platinum card, for which I pay an arm and a leg. We tried to order tickets for "The Lion King" for my daughter and her kids, but the AmEx guy said he couldn't do any better than Ticketmaster. The new Mastercard International platinum card could entice me to switch if the ads specified what services it provides that AmEx doesn't.

But the car companies could blunt the need for the platinum cards by out-doing them on services. General Motors Corp. says it has a database of 3.2 million listings from car washes to bookstores that OnStar subscribers (for $22.50 a month) get from a voice-activated cellular phone. One big disadvantage: The OnStar system doesn't have a digital display screen.

The OnStar TV commercials show a GM car lost in some deep, dark forest, and the kids conjuring up all sorts of demons converging on them. A reassuring OnStar man directs the driver and his family to the nearest gas station, and suddenly the car is out of the woods and on its way to safety.

Future auto marketing battles will be fought over which car has better and more comprehensive navigation systems and concierge services, not over RPMs and sheet metal. If the car companies can make the driving experience less of a hassle, people will take more auto trips.

What's more, advertisers will fight for the right to show their locations exclusively on the digital navigation screens with the same fervor McDonald's and Burger King fight to offer kids exclusive movie toys.

The next step for the navigation systems, whether satellite, CDs or cellular telephones, is to warn drivers about traffic congestion and suggest alternate routes.

Who cares if Catera is the Cadillac that zigs. Can it get me to the church on time? And send the bouquet to the bride while I'm still on the road?

The one downside to navigation screen ads, of course, is that they could contribute to drivers taking their eyes off the road. As the navigation systems become more sophisticated, advertisers will be tempted to jazz up the graphics as they've done with Website ads. My advice-the first of many unsolicited missives during the upcoming year-is that they'd be wise to use a little restraint here.

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