The public may just have the last word on mobile marketing

Look on the bright side of the revolution hitting marketers: it can’t be worse than the TV ads we’re subjected to, and it may bring about the demise of the cellphone

Scholars have long pondered which is the oldest profession, advertising or prostitution, and, in the same spirit of inquiry, what, if any, are the differences between them.

For instance, when business is slack, filles de joie are wont to draw attention to their wares with a hearty shout along the lines of “Want a good time, dearie?” Costermongers adopt a similar technique, though a different choice of words, when their brussels sprouts fail to win the approval of the passing throng. This method of advertising, though no doubt effective in its way, lacks precision. Mathematically speaking, the odds against finding, among a random cavalcade of passers-by, one who wants a good time, and moreover at precisely that time, or whose thoughts can be persuaded to turn away from a reverie on the meaning of life into the direction of brussels sprouts, are small.

In the past, advertisers faced such odds with a stoical resolve, yet their hearts yearned for greater accuracy, for what they called “targeting”. Too many of their flowers, they mused, were born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air. But that was yesterday. Thanks to the headlong rush of digital technology, advertisers have before them the enticing prospect of being able to shout from shop doors at precisely the right passers-by and to stand a reasonable chance of luring them inside. This is made possible by a combination of cellular telephone technology, satellite navigation, and the number-crunching power of computers.

In the US, where these developments are being pioneered, the advertising world is abuzz with excitement. “Television-style advertising is coming to a mobile phone near you,” reports the New York Times. “It is part of a broader push by marketers to create a new generation of ‘up close and personal’ ads by delivering video, audio, banner displays and text clips over a device carried by most American adults.”

Marketers are particularly excited about the prospect of eventually using cellphones, many of which are equipped with global positioning systems, to send ads to consumers based on their location. With that information, marketers could, in theory, send pitches from retailers to cellphone users who might be in the vicinity of a store.

“This could be the silver bullet we’ve been looking for in advertising for a long time,” said Laura Marriott, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Association, a consortium of wireless carriers, ad agencies, technology companies and advertisers.

If you weave into this technology the data on our spending habits held by credit card companies you have an advertising technique of frightening potency and limitless potential to infuriate. Imagine, you are strolling down a street and your phone rings. It is not, as you might have expected, a loved one calling to murmur soothing sweetness into your ear, but Tesco, whose in-town mini-emporium you are nearing, to remind you that you are almost out of cat food.

Understandably, not everyone in the US is happy about this new and exciting development. “This is part of the creep of advertising into every nook and cranny of our lives,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a non-profit consumer group. “This is advertising right in your face.”

And so it is. But let us look on the positive side. Too few of us in this cosseted consumer age allow our brains to respond to the stimulus that proper infuriation can provide. Just as our bodies benefit from exercise that hurts, our cerebral organ needs to be pummelled in order to give of its best. Advertising fulfils that function. Or it used to. Today, we have become so inured to the awfulness of most TV advertising that it washes over us, leaving our brains unstimulated by the beneficial abrading they crave.

When was the last time you felt the temples throb, the eyes narrow and the blood bubble within your veins, all of which are the proper and desirable symptoms of being urged to swallow something called bifidus digestivum – good, it is said, for the digestive transit? Similarly, the words “Quote me happy” ought to induce, in an adult of average weight, height and mental soundness, a desire to end it all with a blunt razor. Then there is that ad showing a submarine stone being washed ashore, where it is picked up by a barefoot beachcomer and morphs into a mobile phone called Pebl. Which, frankly, is Terrbl.

With luck, telephone advertising will restore one of life’s great irritants to its rightful place at the top of the list of those little things that keep us in touch with our inner-selves. If, however, the silver bullet results in fewer people using mobile phones in public places, all that will be achieved is the removal of a public irritant. Such is progress.

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