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Did you hear that? Direct-sound ads target one person at a time


The Basilica of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Minneapolis tried out a directional sound advertisement for its annual block party last year. Pedestrians heard a message that even those standing beside them could not. "If you hear this," it said, "it's a sign. Make the pilgrimage to the Basilica block party." (Courtesy of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America)

On a recent Saturday in the basement of a New York Public Library branch, Derek Cason, a frequent patron, stood before a wall of 17 silent flat-screen televisions and waved his right hand in the air. Suddenly the sound came on.

Cason had triggered one of three flat, round speakers that hover like street lamps above the media wall. Because he stood right below the speaker, the broadcast was clear. But to the people typing on computers and reading books a few yards away, it sounded like nothing at all. That’s the idea behind directed sound, a new technology that could change fundamentally the way advertisers, well, advertise.

Brands and retailers wanting to create dynamic environments are already toying with taste, touch and smell, said David Polinchock, the chief experience officer at Brand Experience Lab, a marketing consultant firm and think tank. “The lag has been sound.”

Normally, sound waves fan out from a source and bounce all over the place, which makes the loudspeaker, for example, an imprecise tool for advertisers who don’t want to seem obnoxious. Directed sound is different. It’s the laser beam to the speaker’s light bulb. Rather than going every which way, frequencies emitted from a directed-sound speaker travel along a straight path without dispersing. Only people standing directly in the line of the sound beam can hear it; people standing even a few feet away hear nothing.

Lately, advertisers have been looking at how this innovation might help them lure customers to a church gathering or get them to watch a new television show. And while it’s early to say whether focused audio is the retailer’s answer to the “lag” in sound-manipulation tools, the idea of confining and controlling noise in a small space has a powerful appeal to marketers. “That’s a lot more thoughtful than blasting something over a loudspeaker,” said Lori Peterzell, the vice president of marketing for A&E.

Her company recently won a prestigious award, called the OBIE, for a campaign that became a test case for the responsible, or irresponsible, use of directed sound.

Creators of the A&E advertisement, dubbed the Whispering Wallscape, set up a direct-sound device (which was subsequently stolen, twice) on a rooftop in lower Manhattan last December. They focused it just so, so that a female voice whispering “Who’s there?” would hit pedestrians at precisely the moment they walked in front of the four-story billboard for a reality program about paranormal activity.

“We wanted to freak people out; we didn’t want them running to the hills,” said Peterzell, who called the advertisement a great success but was also careful to stress how targeted-sound systems should be used only to match the content they’re pitching. The Whispering Wallscape, she acknowledged, met with “varying degrees of appreciation.”

To some, it represented how directed sound could become a sort of gateway drug to predatory sales methods of Orwellian proportions. “I think this is probably a step too far in terms of intrusions into personal space,” said James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Emerging Technology and Ethics. It’s not the technology itself but its potential for abuse that’s the problem, he said, taking a logical leap to depict a scene of “hyper-marketing” where cameras outfitted with gender-identification software speak directly to consumers. “I don’t think that’s a direction we want to go in,” he said, adding that the “concern is if it’s nonconsensual.”

Manufacturers insist that directed sound is, in fact, more consensual than other audio systems. “It’s about quieting it down out there so there’s not so many speakers,” said Robert Putnam, the director of media relations at the American Technology Corporation, the company whose founder, Woody Norris, developed the technology in 1996.

“Certainly you can use it in a creepy way,” said Joseph Pompei, who created the device that he calls the “audio spotlight” while he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999. “But it’s actually easier to avoid than a loudspeaker.”

Still, advertisers leery of seeming too aggressive are weighing how to use focused audio in a way that won’t turn people off, said Jessica Yarmey, the director of marketing research at the Outdoor Advertising Association, which sponsors the OBIEs.

The key is consent, said Polinchock. “If I’m walking through the cookie aisle and every cookie brand every two feet is yelling something at my head, then I’m going to be pissed off.”

Though no one has done market research specific to directional sound, if a recent survey by the outdoor advertising group about Bluetooth and SMS is any indication, people are receptive to advertisements as long as there’s a payout in the end. In that nonscientific experiment, 28 percent of 146 unique users chose to accept the free content they were offered on their phones.

As long as people will pay attention to advertisements that have value for them, the way they’re delivered may not be so important. “As we get more clever with the content—and that’s what we always stress—that makes people more willing to accept the technology,” said Polinchock.

There’s a long list of clever applications for targeted-audio systems. Imagine, said Putnam, your hard-of-hearing grandfather listening to the radio at full blast while you read a novel. Your partner setting an alarm that won’t wake you up, too. Or a store window explaining its contents at the push of a button.

Back at the public library, Cason, a television industry veteran with a graying beard and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, contemplated the future of this new technology. “I think Americans in particular are so inundated with advertisements. They’d follow you to the bathroom if they could,” he said. “But we’re pretty good at screening out what we don’t want to hear.”

With directed sound, at least, all you have to do is walk away.