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Coming soon: ads on your phone

If I had a cell phone, this would make me upset: "After years of hesitation, some of the largest wireless companies in the U.S. are starting to allow advertising on their cellphone networks, with the hope that these small screens eventually will rival the Internet as a powerful marketing venue" (from Wednesday's WSJ). Though they won't yet air ads during calls (they will only display them during Internet usage), this would seem to pave the way.

Cellphone companies are eyeing ads as a way to combat declining revenue from voice calls, which have been getting cheaper to attract new customers. At the same time, carriers have come under pressure to introduce advertising from media companies that are investing heavily to bring sports, news, videos and other entertainment to wireless devices. Content providers are looking for a new revenue source partly because many have been disappointed with consumer response to efforts to sell such content for a fee.

Do people really want content on their phone? This suggests they'll take it if it's there and free, as a kind of novelty, but they won't pay. Content has a symbiotic relation with ads, they enable each other and allow them to put each other before the eyes of indifferent consumers, who have no strong attachment or attraction to the content. Content then becomes the alibi, the trojan horse sneaking ads in so that users can be acclimated to their appearance in what companies acknowledge to be the customer's personal space. At that point the really nefarious part kicks in:

Many marketers are intrigued by cellphone ads because they can target customers more precisely than ads on television, online or in print. Phone companies have a lot of their customers' personal information, from billing records, and locations where they are using their phones in real time. Carriers can potentially track which wireless Web sites a customer is browsing, for instance, and send them targeted ads while they're using the service.

With your billing information and by tracking your usage history and (who knows?) potentially your calling history and your global position, your phone company can target you with increasingly "relevant" ads specific to your situation, hitting you with a message when you are most vulnerable in your "personal" cell phone space. Phone service is something that people consider a utililty -- so would this come to pass, it would be similar to having to hear an ad for brands related to the foods you cook everytime you turned on your stove. And when we provide billing information, we're not thinking of it as giving consent to marketing invasions. The only reason they could ever get away with this is because enough people are so habituated to the advertising buyosphere that they are impressed and flattered by me-specific ads. Perhaps they buy into the theory that targeted ads are beneficial to them, that advertisers just want to help them and don't really want to waste their time and attention. This article from Reason makes the case for the benefits of our personal information flowing freely through integrated databases: "If we want the low prices and consumer choices of a database nation, we may have to tolerate unsolicited sales pitches." This is a reiteration of the cell phone trojan horse; if we want content for cheap, we need to grant permission to have our consciousness altered by ads. The only benefit that comes from this is that we have our wants generated andd sated with more efficiency, so that we conumse a great deal faster. Then again, maybe low prices and pointless choices aren't as important as we tend to think.



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