[11 October 2007]
Advertisers appear to be salivating at the prospects of sending ads to individuals’ cell phones, and they are hoping to bait the hook for consumers by promising that ads will subsidize the cell phones and make them free to use. So having private and personal conversations brought to you by Nike and Starbucks and Miller Lite may not be too far off. As a non-cell-phone user, I can only speculate as to how annoying this will be, though I’d be much more likely to use a cell phone if I didn’t have to decode the arcane service plans to get one. I don’t need the “convenience” of being always accessible so badly that I’m willing to feel perpetually ripped off by roaming charges and binding contracts and other hidden fees to have it. I’ve always had difficulty wrapping my mind around the monthly minutes model and the other price discrimination techniques in play with cell phones, and I still can’t fathom why text messages are so costly. Maybe when they are supported by ads the way many email services are, that will change.
The advantages to marketers of cell-phone ads are self-evident: The cell phone tracks where you are and allows for the ultimate in contextual ad placement. This is why Google is trying to get in on the action. It also compiles data on what are interested in and what sort of people you talk to, and if they are linked in as well, what they are interested in and so on. The cell phone network that marketers could tap into is much like the social networks mapped out on MySpace and Facebook, only much more useful—much less fictional, and intimately connected with one’s actual conduct in the material world. And because the medium is so personal, the ads can be personalized to the most extreme degree without the danger of alienating those not in the target audience. Presumably, some consumers will find such finely targeted ads useful rather than intrusive. They will want to, for example, know what marketers want them to think of the various retail outlets they might happen to be passing at any given moment.
Tyler Cowen, however, suspects that people probably don’t want ads invading the inner sanctum of their phone.
Most people tolerate ads in their TV and radio shows, and indeed most of cable has evolved into an ad-supported medium. [But] many viewers turn on the TV or radio to dull their senses and simply to hear voices or see faces. Those who want more buy HBO and TiVo. In contrast, we call on the cell phone to feel in control of a situation (am I too influenced by my experience of a teenage stepdaughter?). The last thing the caller wants is to have that feeling of control interrupted by…lack of control.
I don’t know that people would experience ads directly at them personally as a loss of control, though; they may find it flattering—“Just imagine, these huge megacorporations have gone to the trouble of getting to know me and my habits personally.” A small minority will be utterly creeped out by the thought of all this invasive surveillance, but others will feel the same thrill that reality-TV participants must feel when they know lots of people are watching. Advertising may keep lonely people company, and who is more lonely than the person addicted to checking a cell phone for updates?