Despite the privacy invasions and wrongful imprisonments in the Minority Report, the most disturbing scene in the futuristic thriller is the interactive hologram advertisements that read people's emotions and call out to them by their name. While Philip K. Dick's vision of a wayward security state still lies in the realm of science fiction, the personalized ads were frighteningly real.
Armed with digital technology and a new medium of communication that gives advertisers unprecedented access to your private information, advertising is about to get extremely personal.
"The rise of the digital media enables more advertising to be personalized and customized," says Stuart Elliott, the advertising columnist for The New York Times, "and surveys show that consumer resistance to advertising declines if they feel that the advertising is something they're really interested in and is relevant to them."
The power of digital advertising is already being harnessed in subtle ways. Google uses your browser history and Gmail account to tailor their ads according to what you search. Recently, San Jose-based Pudding Media began offering free internet phone service on the condition that it can listen to your conversation and send display ads to your computer based on what you talk about. Expect this technology to get very sophisticated, very quickly.
Advertising analysts predict this will mean the end of the 30-second mass message and the birth of the personal ad, customized to your specific interests. Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield has called hyper-targeting a "beautiful thing" since it forces advertisers to treat consumers as individuals instead of demographics. It will also be extremely lucrative. Analysts predict the digital advertising industry will be worth $23.5 billion by 2010. After years of wondering how to make money online, corporations are now salivating over what they call "digital gold" – with your personal information acting as the mine. Social networking sites offer advertisers the easiest access to this information and Facebook and MySpace have begun to dive through their users' profiles.
"We are blessed with a phenomenal amount of information about the likes, dislikes and life's passions of our users," Peter Levinsohn, the president of Fox Interactive Media (which runs MySpace), told The New York Times. "We have an opportunity to provide advertisers with a completely new paradigm."
But lost in the gold rush is the extent to which our personal information is being manipulated. Many people still expect a degree of privacy when they're online, but marketers will be monitoring everything from what they watch and read to where their mouse cursor sits on a webpage.
"This is the most powerful medium ever created," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, "but the most powerful and pervasive messages will be about advertising and marketing. They'll be able to reach you everywhere, create an advertisement that is honed precisely to your interests and deliver it with the technology that has been designed to work in a very deep, almost unconscious, way to influence your ideas and values."
What's even more troubling is that as the media evolves into the digital era, there will be little opportunity for people to opt out. If you want to watch any kind of television or communicate in any fashion, expect advertisers to be watching and listening with you, cleverly reminding you to consume along the way.