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Advertising dips into the frontier of the outernet

Stand somewhere long enough and someone might hang a video screen in front of you.

Technology is helping advertisers post sales pitches in places where people least expect to find them or might -- gulp -- actually enjoy them.

The idea is to capture consumers' attention with ads that are relevant to their location or circumstance. Billboards and print ads are nice, but they don't deliver the targeted messages or interactivity that grabs today's more tech-savvy consumers, said Jack Sullivan, senior vice president and out-of-home media director for Starcom Worldwide, a sister company of Leo Burnett.

"Our customers are constantly asking, 'What have you done for me lately?' and they don't want to hear about traditional media," Sullivan said. "As a result, the bar for marketing on the street is being raised in a hurry."

The $5.3 billion outdoor advertising niche has a snappy and relatively new name, outernet, and a legion of fans.

Take McDonald's Corp. for example. The fast-food chain is using screens mounted above counters in some restaurants to keep customers too preoccupied to notice how long they've stood in line. The experiment has worked so well that McDonald's is planning a national rollout, said David Schmahl, vice president of sales for Minneapolis-based Next Generation Network, which supplied the screens and content. McDonald's announced last week that it would allot $22 million for franchisees to reconfigure their counters.

Video screens displaying ads and news headlines in airports, elevators and on gas pumps and cash machines are only the beginning. And even they aren't as targeted as advertisers hope to get, Sullivan said.

"Everyone is looking for something that will help them put their message in the hands of the ideal consumer--and that's someone who asks for it," Sullivan said.

That's where San Francisco's WideRay Corp. comes in. Co-founded two years ago by Chicago native Brandon Berger, the company's mobile-caching server, called Jack, is making a splash in sports arenas, entertainment venues and stores across the country. The wireless box, about the size of a paperback book, beams information into the Palm and PocketPC devices of customers who point at it. Sony Corp.'s retail outlet on Michigan Avenue has positioned the box alongside products, allowing window-shoppers to download product information.

The San Francisco Giants are among a few sports teams using the box to beam score cards and other team information into fans' hand-helds -- all carefully wrapped in corporate advertising, of course -- as they enter Pacific Bell Park. Berger said the Chicago White Sox are looking for a corporate sponsor so that they can work with the company to execute similar marketing campaigns next season.

"Today, businesses have to be prepared to give people the information they want when they want it," Berger said.

But how much is too much? Ad agencies and their clients aren't asking that question just yet.

"I thought we'd crossed the line years ago when there was half the stuff out there that there is today," Sullivan said. "But consumers are still reaching for ads. And if the banks can do away with that $1.50 out-of-network service charge, I bet everyone would be more than happy to watch an ad instead."


Christine Tatum, The Chicago Tribune March 25, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.