Targeted TV: Ads Will Soon Know You, Your Wants

Television still rules our multiplatform kingdom. Sure, you may be getting more and more entertainment from computers, cell phones and MP3 players, but the average American adult sees more than five hours of TV a day.

That ubiquity has actually been a mixed blessing for advertisers, says analyst Derek Baine. If you're selling diapers, for example, why pay for commercials that go to households without babies?

"You don't really want a broad audience," he says. "You want parents."

And before long, our new digital set-top boxes and recording devices will start sending us ads about things we care about.

"Your TV is about to change," says David Verklin, who runs Canoe Ventures. The company, which is backed by every major cable network, is part of a new effort to make television interactive.

Verklin says soon, if you're watching the Home Shopping Network, you'll be able to point your remote control at the screen, push a few buttons, enter a pin code and charge a purchase to a credit card or PayPal account.

While this may be the last thing a debt-challenged nation needs, the new technology will presumably delight reality-show fans: It'll be a new way to vote for their favorite contestants. Foodies, meanwhile, will be able to get recipes sent from cooking shows straight into their e-mail inboxes.

And commercials will start to seem unusually relevant. An ad from a national travel agency might home in more specifically on you, says Baine, the TV industry analyst.

"If you happen to be in New York City, the software inserts a [commercial for a] special going to Bermuda," he says. "If you're in Los Angeles, you'll see a special going to Hawaii."

Consumer advocates worry about marketers compromising our privacy by rummaging through our viewing habits and getting us to trade personal information for coupons.

Jeff Chester, who runs the Center for Digital Democracy, says powerful marketing forces may turn our TiVos and set-top boxes into digital spies.

"They may not know your name," he says. "But they'll know exactly what you've bought through your television, the kind of programs you like. They'll have access to your building records, to demographic databases."

Canoe Ventures' Verklin says the industry can be trusted to self-regulate. He says cable companies will behave no differently than direct-mail firms and will rely only on public information.

Chester, for his part, believes regulation will prove necessary. Meanwhile, an entire industry is evolving to take advantage of the new technology, which could start customizing TV ads as early as June, soon after the digital transition.

The Super Bowl will never be the same.

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