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Will companies go out of bounds in transmitting Super Bowl ads to your phone?

January 31, 2014 at 6:33 PM EST
While fans gets amped up for the biggest football game of the year, companies are figuring out how to tap into that enthusiasm by adapting to changing media habits and tech use. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Nick Wingfield of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  Beyond the football game itself, advertisements have long been a big part of the event that is Super Bowl Sunday.  Now, as people are increasingly using mobile technology, companies are trying to step up their game, looking for new ways to pitch their product directly to you.

And there are questions about whether they may be crossing a line.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story from our New York studio.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Fans who’ve descended on New York for Sunday’s supersized matchup are excited, as always.  And so are companies looking to highlight new trends in tech.

The Web site whosgoingtowin.com, for instance, has been tabulating fans’ daily Twitter votes.  Each night, the winning team gets a display of its colors atop the Empire State Building.  Last night, the honor went to Seattle.

A number of companies also have rolled out online previews of Super Bowl ads, hoping to maximize the return on 30-second commercials that cost $4 million apiece.  Last year’s broadcast pulled in more than 108 million viewers, but the NFL hopes to expand past the television market.  This year, online viewers can see a live-stream of the game on FOXsportsgo.com or the company’s iPad app.

Some Verizon iPhone users will watch using the NFL mobile app.  It also gives pop-up alerts on events and retail promotions around Manhattan and areas near MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.  Tiny beacons transmit the alerts, based on the location of your cell phone.

Nick Wingfield of The New York Times has been writing about this latest move by advertisers in the mobile age.  He joins me from Seattle.

So, Nick, I tried to explain it, but how do those beacons work?  How do they know where you are and where all the products around you are?

NICK WINGFIELD, The New York Times:  So, these beacons are a form of transmitter that the NFL is installing in various areas around Midtown, and what they do is they wirelessly communicate using a technology called Bluetooth with your smartphone.

So if you have downloaded an app for the NFL and you walk within let’s say 10, 20, 30 feet of one of these transmitters, it will wake up your phone and send you an alert, if you have consented, that is, to receive these alerts.

And the alerts might tell you to walk down the street so go see the Vince Lombardi trophy.  It might tell you to go to the fourth floor of Macy’s to get NFL merchandise or to go see the toboggan run in Midtown Manhattan.  There is a variety of information it can give to you.

But basically it works on the technology that almost all of us have in modern smartphones today.  And if you have the right app, then that means that the NFL can communicate with you.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And you’re saying that it’s not just the Super Bowl, that there are other stadiums and there are other cities and other leagues rolling this technology out?

NICK WINGFIELD:  Absolutely.

Think of the NFL and the Super Bowl this week as the first real big test of this knowledge.  It’s being rolled out in baseball ball parks.  It’s expected to be in about two dozen stadiums, including Fenway Park, by opening day this year.  American Eagle stores are putting it in.  Macy’s is putting it in.

So there are a variety of different venues, stadiums and other — you know, other stores that are installing this technology.  And from what I have heard from people who are fluent in this area, you know, it’s going to be hard to find public venues that don’t have some form of this technology, because basically venues want to be able to communicate with their customers and spectators.

And this is thought to be one way to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So beyond sports venues, we’re talking about retailers trying to communicate.  So this is almost like an electronic barker standing at the door saying, hey, come in here, there is a sale at 10 percent off if you walk in and buy something right now?

NICK WINGFIELD:  Think about your experience when you go to Amazon and you log in and maybe it welcomes you by name and then it sorts of customizes itself.

This is kind of the same idea, but in the bricks and mortar world.  You might walk into an American Eagle store, it would say welcome, Hari.  It might recognize that you are a loyal customer and give you certain customized offers.  But it would do this very precisely.

When you go over the jeans section, it would know when you got close to the jeans.  It wouldn’t just be one antenna for the entire store.  It is a very local technology that can be tuned very precisely to give you a better experience when you are wandering around the store.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, I have got to ask, in the era of NSA revelations or even credit card breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus, who owns all that information about where I am in the store and what my tastes an preferences are?

NICK WINGFIELD:  Well, in this case, the transmitters themselves, the people, technologists say, don’t actually record your location.

What records your location are the apps that you are using when you go into the store.  So in the case of the NFL, that would be the NFL, Major League Baseball if you go into a ballpark.  And what they do with it is really up to their terms of service.  A lot of these places say they won’t sell it to another company, they’re going to respect your privacy, but, really, you know, they have a lot of latitude in terms of what they can use it for.

And, of course, one hopes that they have good security because frankly someone can break in and steal this data the way they have credit card information for Target.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So let’s say, even setting hackers aside, doesn’t that data over time become more valuable, say, if someone approaches the NFL and says I would love to know the type of customers that buys jerseys is also the type of customers that buys beer, and could you let me take a look at your customer list?

NICK WINGFIELD:  Yes, it could be.

And we will really see how this information, how this type of technology pans out.  It really has not been tested broadly yet.  And so it may turn out that people really hate it.  We haven’t talked really — we talked about privacy.  But there are also some potential annoyance issues here.

You walk into a ballpark, if they start sending you too many messages alerting you every 10 feet when there is a hot dog stand nearby or do you want to buy a beer and all of this, that can get very irritating, consumers would reject the technology, and opt out of the applications that do this tracking.

So it remains to be seen how valuable this data is going to be.  But certainly the promise is there and the potential for abuse.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Nick, Nick Wingfield from The New York Times joining us from Seattle, thanks so much.

NICK WINGFIELD:  You bet.