Direct hits

The advertising industry is drooling at the prospect of using advanced technology to bombard us with ever more sophisticated invitations to spend, spend, spend.

Advances in areas such as sensors, wireless networking and display technology will soon make this possible, and UK engineers are already developing innovative systems in this area (see sidebar, below). But some are warning that reckless use of this potential could create a major public backlash against ‘hi-tech junk mail’.

In the coming era of carefully targeted, highly personalised marketing made possible by technology, the types of advertising we are accustomed to will seem like the blunderbuss compared to the cruise missile (see sidebar, below).

The marketing industry has always been interested in using new technology as a way to get its message across. However, there are signs of a new urgency in advertisers’ search amid a growing sense that tried and tested forms of advertising are starting to look rather stale.

Consider the views of Andrew Harrison, marketing director of confectionery giant Nestl̩ Rowntree Рmanufacturer of well-loved stalwarts such as Kit-Kat and Yorkie, and as such traditionally a heavy user of television advertising. In comments that caused a stir in marketing circles, Harrison warned that TV was looking like an increasingly ineffective and expensive way in which to promote his brands.

According to Harrison, the type of highly targeted advertising that would only recently have been regarded as science fiction is ‘almost science fact’. The Nestlé man, who controls a marketing budget running into tens of millions, said these emerging advertising opportunities compared favourably with the ‘overpriced breaks in a soap’ on offer from television.

Harrison also spoke of the need to reach people in the places that matter to producers of fast-moving consumer goods – most notably the supermarket, where the vast majority of buying decisions are actually made. Technology offers the marketing industry the potential to achieve this, and it is likely to find it an offer too good to refuse.

Dr. Jim Schoenenberger, an associate director in the wireless business unit of technology specialist Cambridge Consultants, said there is a growing interest in several areas of R&D within the advertising community. Primarily these are advanced sensors to know where and who people are, wireless communications to get information to and from them, and display technology to show them the message the advertiser wants to get over.

The motivation for the industry is the significant financial rewards on offer. According to Schoenenberger, if technology can achieve highly accurate, highly personalised delivery of marketing messages, people such as Harrison would be willing to pay handsomely. ‘They could charge so much more for that than for the traditional scattergun approach.’

The urgency of the search is heightened, he said, by the sense within the advertising industry that the tried and tested methods are running out of steam. ‘There are people who are coming out of the advertising community saying we have got a real problem here. I think it is being driven by the advertising industry going through a really tough time,’ said Schoenenberger.

So how could the application of advanced technology work in practice? Schoenenberger said one concept under active consideration within the industry would seek to revolutionise the humble poster hoarding, one of the most traditional of advertising media.

One of the problems facing outdoor media, as they are known in the industry, is knowing whether they are in the right place to be seen by the people they want to reach. According to Schoenenberger, the solution being considered involves placing a ‘black box’ data storage device in 10,000 vehicles containing the type of information advertisers are keen to know, such as age, socio-economic group and occupation.

Hoardings would be fitted with some type of RF tag able to communicate with the in-car device when the vehicle drives past. ‘Over six months or a year you could build up a very precise picture of who is going past and at what time of day,’ said Schoenenberger. Then you link that in with the display technology and create a system that changes the advertisement on view to match that pattern.’

This would have huge implications for the outdoor marketing industry, providing a ‘ratings’ system similar to that used by the radio and television channels to persuade companies to advertise with them at particular times. It would, however, be likely to go unnoticed by most members of the public.

This is not the case with other uses of technology being mooted as the answer to an advertiser’s prayers, some of which border on the bizarre and are already with us.

Schoenenberger believes some technology-based marketing has the potential to be highly invasive. ‘I have no doubt that there will be a lot of objections on behalf of a lot of consumers,’ he said. ‘There has to be an opt-out, a way for people to choose not to receive this information.’

Here Schoenenberger touches upon what is likely to become a hugely controversial area as the technology needed for the really hard sell begins to come on stream.Dr. David Arnott, a specialist in marketing communications at Warwick Business School, said some of the innovations currently under development had the potential to alienate the very people they are designed to attract.

‘They may be developed by engineers who aren’t necessarily thinking about the effect on the customer,’ he said. ‘They are doing it because they have got the technology to do it. I think a lot of these things are going to end up annoying a lot of people.’

Arnott gives the example of the intelligent supermarket trolley. Linked to the supermarket via a wireless link and able to capture data from the customer’s store loyalty card, the trolley would then know where it is and who was pushing it. As the customer proceeded through the aisles, he would be bombarded with messages from the trolley about what is on special offer and which regular purchases he may have forgotten. The trolley would be presented to the customer as a service, a helpful companion designed to ease the burden of the weekly shop. In reality, it could become a Trojan Horse for the hardest of sells at the most crucial point in the purchasing process.

‘I believe the majority of customers would find that extremely annoying,’ said Arnott. ‘Such a trolley has been tested, but it has not yet been put into practice.’It is hard to believe that, whatever their potential to irritate, such technologies will not soon become a regular feature in our shops and on the high street.

The advertising and marketing industry is not known for its restraint, particularly when it sniffs the chance of a new commercial opportunity. But Arnott warned that any indiscriminate use of technology in this way could backfire.

For years, he pointed out, the public has been forced to put up with the mountain of junk mail sent by firms engaged in direct marketing exercises. When given the opportunity to remove their names from the databases that generated the unwanted post, people did so in their millions.

Any reaction to a hi-tech junk mail exercise is likely to be even more decisive. ‘If they have to physically avoid this advertising in their daily lives, people are going to get angry about it,’ said Arnott.

From talking tubs to motion-activated billboards

Systems paving the way for a revolution in the way products are promoted are already with us, from whispered invitations to buy burgers to talking margarine tubs. Unsurprisingly it is in the US where the most eye-catching innovations are under development.

Early this year, as part of a campaign to promote prank comedy series Crank Yankers, cable channel Comedy Central marketed the series via motion-activated talking billboards placed in men’s toilets at bars, clubs and restaurants that played audio clips from the show to passers-by.

A similar system is being used by US grocery brand ConAgra to create margarine tubs that call out to customers as they walk past. But the company has taken talking tub technology one step further by including light-sensitive audio chips in selected Parkay margarine packets as part of a competition promotion. As the product is opened a message is activated if the buyer is a winner.

Some of the world’s most recognisable global brands are at the forefront of these trials. Originally developed as a noise weapon , the HyperSonic Sound system from American Technologies has enabled tests of personalised advertising to begin in McDonald’s outlets in Florida, Texas and Indiana.

The technology operates by using the non-linear properties of air. An ultrasonic sound wave is transmitted with sufficient volume to cause the air around it to create new frequencies as the wave moves. As listeners cannot hear ultrasonic frequencies they only hear new sounds formed by the non-linear action of the air.

A voice signal is then passed to an emitter or transducer powered by an ultrasonic amplifier. The sound from the audio source is converted into an ultrasonic signal by the signal processor before being amplified and emitted into the air by the transducer. As the ultrasonic energy is highly directional, it forms a column straight in front of the emitter. Only those in direct line of it can hear the noise, allowing two people at the same table to hear different, targeted ads.

HSS’ developers said the system could be used in drive-throughs to improve the acoustic quality of order windows. It could also replace expensive and easily damaged staff headsets, allowing managers to direct staff without customers hearing them.

Toys ‘R Us is also exploring technology’s potential, using a full-body point-of-sale advertising and entertainment system that projects images on to a floor or wall. The images can react to a person’s presence and motion. When a customer enters the display area the system responds with visual effects and game play connected to the brand being advertised. Examples include virtual balls that move as the customer kicks and a paint-by-numbers drawing that is coloured in when the customer makes swiping movements with his arms. A display using the system has recently been installed in Toys ‘R Us’s New York store.

Engineering a new marketing era

The growing presence of engineers in shaping the future of advertising technology is exemplified by Hypertag, a company developing an innovative system for downloading data from outdoor displays.

Hypertag uses its proprietary technology to tag advertising panels with a small, battery-powered wireless transponder. This allows consumers to ‘point and click’ with their mobile phones to access web-based content such as further information about a product.

All four founders of the Cambridge-based start-up have an engineering background. Jonathan Morgan, its chief executive, studied manufacturing engineering and is a GKN veteran, most recently in its powder metallurgy division.

Hypertag’s operations director, Nick Hardy, a consulting engineer, said he and his co-founders spotted the potential of their core technology to open new routes between advertisers and consumers.

Hardy said Hypertag is acutely aware of the need to avoid its system being the vehicle for unwanted assaults on people’s handsets. ‘From the outset we have made sure that our technology is user initiated,’ said Hardy. ‘That is very important, because anything else would lead to them getting irritated, switching it off and never using it again.’

Hardy also pointed out that information actively sought by the consumer is always perceived by advertisers as being far more valuable than unsolicited material. ‘There are good commercial reasons for making sure the user is in charge.’

While developing Hypertag, the engineers had to be aware of the fast-changing nature of mobile telecoms. It is designed to be technology neutral, able to operate with communications systems as diverse as infrared, Bluetooth or RF. ‘What we believe we have done is make some fairly complex technology easy and convenient for the user,’ said Hardy.

Alongside companies such as Hypertag that are strongly focused on the advertising and promotions market, other technology developers have seen opportunities in the field open up during their R&D.

This is particularly true of display technology. Ntera, a Dublin-based nanotechnology specialist, is commercialising a system called nanochromics for a wide variety of display applications. Using a nano-structured film of titanium dioxide to create a white background and viologens – molecules that change colour when an electric current is applied – Ntera said it can create very thin, high-quality displays with low power consumption.

Initially it is likely to appear on small devices such as smartcards, but the company has the advertising hoarding firmly in its sights as an eventual application for its technology.

Another contender in the field is the screen based on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. Companies such as Cambridge Display Technologies, one of the pioneers in the field, are developing technology to make electronic screens that can literally be sprayed on to thin, flexible substances such as plastic.

Innovations such as these could lead during the next decade to giant displays of extremely high visual quality, able to be changed at will and even self-powered by solar energy.