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The Invisible Hand of CBS Marketing

Pt_jerico_about_photo The entertainment industry has been slow to adopt new technologies to deliver products, but quick to embrace them for promotion. The latest to push the edge of the envelope is CBS, which announced this week that it would put five interactive billboards in New York's Grand Central Station next month to promote prime-time shows. The technique is pure "Minority Report": the billboards will spew video clips from the shows wirelessly to passers-by with Bluetooth-enabled cellphones and PDAs.

Some folks recoil at the idea of commercials being inserted into their pockets or purses, and this technique would be too intrusive if it, like conventional TV advertising, spammed everybody in range. But Bluetooth devices let users tune out all unsolicited pitches, if they wish. And even people who use the most permissive Bluetooth setting still have to agree to download something being offered to them wirelessly. Folks who have their phones or PDAs set to accept all Bluetooth connections will get a message when they walk past one of the CBS billboards, asking if they want to learn more about CBS. If they agree, they'll get a short clip from the show featured on that billboard.

This strikes me as a smart way to reach people who a) are interested in TV, and b) have time to kill, and thus may actually want to watch a clip from a new show. The ads can be passed from user to user, too, enabling viral marketing. The main drawback here is that people who like what they see can't download a whole episode or schedule a recording with a single click, raising the chances that they'll miss the show anyway. But then, CBS will be making them available online for free shortly after they air, so that's not as much of a problem as it used to be.

It also seems inevitable that the digital airwaves will be filled with marketing messages eager to reach whatever screen we happen to be carrying. It's already happening overseas, where Bluetooth devices are widespread and advertisers have been working for several years to ping them. If they're smart, advertisers will take Bluetooth's crude permission-based system and add the ability for users to declare preferences, so people who don't like action movies or cosmetics won't be bothered by those pitches. Check out this post from MoCo News for one view of this. As inviting as cell phones may be as a marketing vehicle, they're still phones, and as the wildly popular "Do Not Call" list shows, people aren't very receptive to unsolicited marketing on their phones. If Bluetooth users feel overwhelmed or insulted, they'll unplug themselves from the marketing and the system will fail.

The photo is a still from "Jericho," one of the shows CBS will be promoting on its billboards.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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