Spam goes to the streets - sans wires

You've probably thought that the idea of wireless advertising is far-fetched, at least for the moment. After all, there aren't many effective messages you can squeeze into a four-line display. Well, you're wrong.

You've probably thought that the idea of wireless advertising is far-fetched, at least for the moment. After all, there aren't many effective messages you can squeeze into a four-line display

You're thinking wrong. Who needs even a single line?

All you need is the ringer, if you're aiming at cell phones.

In fact, it's almost a miracle that we haven't already been bombarded with commercial messages while we're walking or driving around. For decades, we've been hit with sales pitches while at the dinner table. Why not at the restaurant table, at the theater or on the highway?

In the Internet era, the name of the game is personalization. With the almost commonplace use of satellite systems that pinpoint your location or that of your vehicle, you're talking extreme geographic precision.

So, spam is taking to the streets. Let's say you're walking through Times Square and it happens to be dinnertime. Some alert marketer will send you a pitch for a 20 percent discount on food at an eatery a block away if you can just show your theater ticket for that night.

This is righteous. It may actually turn the tide and prompt people to turn off their cell phones when they don't actually need them. It's not as if we all really need to be in touch at every hour of the day. Disconnection will become tomorrow's true luxury.

But back to the matter at hand.

Two styles can be used to deliver audio, text and video messages to cell phone and portable device users.

One is the aggressive approach, such as that being developed by Advertising.com and GeePS, where ads are sent when a potential customer is near a specific location.

The other is the reactive approach, such as that being promoted by Go2 Systems and Vindigo. Here, no information is sent until requested. The first step is for users to tap a couple of choices on menus of street names, to indicate the intersection they are near. Then, they get fed back lists of nearby restaurants, movies, plays and nightclubs.

The two approaches are likely to coexist. There's nothing inherently wrong with active marketing. In fact, some people will probably want to sign up and get delivered messages without any action on their part, other than to turn on their cell phones or connected portable device. There'll at least be a novelty period when a subscriber will find it cool to be told while passing by Tower Records that there's a sale on that North Mississippi All-Stars CD that he wanted.

Other wireless users will want to avoid another intrusion in the never-ending cascade of commercial messages aimed their way. They'll only sign up for a service that leaves them in control and lets them seek out messages, rather than the other way around.

They will want to specify what they're looking for, at the time of need - even down to the price, color and size. The ability to act on a moment's notice outside a store - or better yet, inside it - will save us all time and, ahem, money. Once you save $50 on a piece of luggage by simply sampling online sales within walking distance, there's little turning back. In your hand, you'll be holding a constantly updating, time- and location-sensitive catalog of products, services and entertainment that, if done smartly, will be tailored to your personal interests.

And, if you don't like all that attention, there's an easy way to end it.

The "off" button.

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