Another Super Bowl Ad Fest, This Time on the Cellphone
By NICK WINGFIELD
Want to see the Vince Lombardi Trophy that goes to the Super Bowl
winner? Take a left in 15 feet. Looking to buy some Super Bowl
merchandise? Try the fourth floor of Macy’s, straight ahead.
The Super Bowl remains the biggest mass-market advertising event
in the country. But this year, a new kind of advertising — personalized
and based on physical location down to a matter of feet — will greet
fans in Times Square and MetLife Stadium, where this weekend’s
championship game will be played.
At both locations, the National Football League has sprinkled tiny
wireless transmitters that can send finely tuned messages to
smartphones. It is the boldest test yet for a months-old technology that
could change how brands of all sorts market to their customers.
For now, the alerts are mostly limited to practical news (like the
nearest entry gate) or promoting in-store sales (say, for your favorite
chocolate) in the first wave of establishments using it. But already the
technology has privacy advocates and legal experts brimming with
concern about the implications. Smartphone users could potentially be
spammed with advertisements, they say, and a company that collects
the data might be inclined to sell it.
“When it rolls out, you will see all this utility for it,” said Ryan Calo,
an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“And at some point the economic incentives will come into play and it
won’t be pretty.”
The transmitters, often called beacons, will be in several hundred
stores and public areas in the coming months, including at two dozen
Major League Baseball stadiums and many Macy’s and American Eagle
Outfitters stores. Apple already has the devices in over 250 stores.
While location-based alerts and advertisements have long been a
feature of smartphones, the new technology requires less from users.
When Apple updated the software for iPhones several months ago, the
company included a new feature, iBeacons, that displays alerts even
when a user is not running an app.
That change has led to a surge in interest among brands.
Technology executives say Apple is further along with its version of the
technology, which is why most alerts of this kind are now sent to iPhone
users. But smartphones running Google’s Android operating system can
also be targeted.
Once users download a brand’s app and give permission to receive
alerts, they can get messages whenever their phone drifts within range
of one of these beacons. (Typically, users can stop the tracking and the
alerts by changing the app’s settings.)
For brands like Major League Baseball, which had more than 10
million users of its MLB.com At Bat app last year, the potential for
outreach is enormous. Brick-and-mortar stores are quickly warming to
the technology, too, thrilled by the prospect of being able to fine-tune
marketing messages and gather more data about customer behavior,
just as online competitors like Amazon have for years.
“The power of this is it really is able to connect the real world, the
brick-and-mortar world, with the virtual world with a level of
granularity that hasn’t existed before,” said Manish Jha, the N.F.L.’s
general manager of mobile.
When shoppers walk through the door of one of 100 American
Eagle stores installing the technology, they will receive a welcome message on their smartphones, notifications of discounts and product
recommendations. The precision of the technology will allow American
Eagle to show sale information for jeans only when a customer is in the
“It gives the retailer a chance to have a one-to-one dialogue directly
with the consumer,” said Alexis Rask, the chief revenue officer of
Shopkick, a start-up in Silicon Valley working with American Eagle and
other retailers like Macy’s to set up beacons in their stores.
Major League Baseball will have beacons installed throughout
Fenway Park in Boston, AT&T Park in San Francisco and about 20 other
stadiums in time for opening day this year. People with smartphones
and one of the two M.L.B. apps with beacon support will get buzzed
with greetings when they pass through turnstiles, messages about
nearby statues and other points of interest and reminders about how
many loyalty points they have from past purchases at the ballpark.
Robert Bowman, president and chief executive of MLB Advanced
Media, the Internet arm of Major League Baseball, said stadiums were
becoming “crucibles for technology.” But he said there was a bold line
between gentle marketing pitches and obnoxious upselling.
Where is that line?
“Welcome back, and last time you bought this jersey. This week, do
you want to buy this jersey?” Mr. Bowman said, composing an
unattractive smartphone advertisement on the fly. “To me, that’s crass
Other location-tracking technologies have helped people orient
themselves on maps by using the satellite-based GPS and Wi-Fi access
points. Those technologies, though, are not as precise as beacons at
detecting a user’s location. GPS signals also do not travel well indoors,
and beacons, many of which are battery-powered and use a technology
called Bluetooth low energy, are cheaper and easier to install than Wi-Fi
antennas. Qualcomm, for instance, makes beacons that cost $10 each
with batteries that last up to three years.
Privacy advocates say they are concerned that the proliferation of
beacons would add considerably to the vast amounts of data marketers are already gathering about consumers. While apps often indicate in
their terms of service how they use location data, many people ignore
the fine print of those agreements.
Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, said
marketers could use the new location tracking tools in unexpected ways,
like mapping relationships for people who happen to visit the same
“Users will have no idea what information is collected or how it will
be used,” he said.
The companies installing the beacons say they will respect the
privacy of people who use the technology. Mr. Jha of the N.F.L., for
instance, said the league was not connecting personal and location data
with its Super Bowl experiment. Supporters say that most people will
find the technology has benefits, like discounts and helpful tips, worth
the trade-off of sharing data. In a test at a Miami Dolphins game at Sun
Life Stadium in Florida last month, Qualcomm used the technology to
alert fans about where to find the shortest concession lines.
And the companies say they realize they need to avoid sending
irrelevant or excessive alerts. Todd Dipaola, the chief executive of
InMarket, a company that has begun testing beacons inside grocery
stores in Cleveland, San Francisco and Seattle, said that approach
would not last long.
“There’s one penalty for annoying your consumer — that’s the death
penalty,” he said, and then described the process of deleting an app.
“They hold down the app, push the X and it’s gone.”
This is a repost of an article that appeared on the New York Times on January 30, 2014