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Advertising 2.0: The rise of the flat screen

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Flat screens like this one are popping up in malls all over the country. This flat screen runs ads displaying the top 10 sales in the mall. (Courtesy of Adspace Networks)

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A new flat screen displays in-house ads and entertainment content as customers wait online at Milano Market in New York City. (By Sarah N. Lynch)

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Flat screens like this one are popping up in malls all over the country. This flat screen runs ads displaying the top 10 sales in the mall. (Courtesy of Adspace Networks)

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A new flat screen runs in house ads and other entertainment content at the Black Bear Saloon in Stamford, Conn. (By Sarah N. Lynch)

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Flat screens like this one are popping up in malls all over the country. This flat screen runs ads displaying the top 10 sales in the mall. (Courtesy of Adspace Networks)

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A new flat screen that advertises specials and entertains customers hangs above the counter at Milano Market in New York City. (By Sarah N. Lynch)

Anton Koncan was searching for a Borders bookstore inside a New Jersey mall on a recent spring afternoon when something he’d never seen before grabbed his attention.

“I noticed this very ‘bassy’ sound, and that’s when I had to turn and look at it,” said the 20-year-old, who was visiting from his home in Winnipeg, Canada.

The sound was actually coming from an 8-foot-tall flat screen television that was flashing images of the top 10 sales in the mall and blaring fast-paced music through a speaker. Until that day, Koncan, who works in security at a mall, had never seen this form of advertising in malls before.

“I think it’s interesting,” he said. “Instead of having something boring and static, it makes the whole place more alive.”

This form of advertising may still seem new to some people, but it could soon become commonplace as flat screen digital advertising proliferates and replaces the traditional advertising signs often found inside retail stores, bars and restaurants.

Spurred by the low cost of the flat screen technology and the continuing decline of newspaper circulations, many companies are now turning to digital flat screens as a new and more creative way to reach a larger group of customers at the time it matters most--when they are about to take out their wallets.

Although the digital advertising industry is still relatively young, the medium has been rapidly growing--and it’s not just limited to the big chain stores. More and more, flat screen advertising is creeping into the corner deli or the local pub.

However, it’s still too early to tell whether the signs are having an impact, say businesses piloting the screens. And consumers seem to have mixed feelings about it, too.

“You can reach people closest to where they might be making a purchasing decision … That’s the potential of it,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “There is also a flip side of this. The hard part to figure out is, does this stuff actually work?”

The content found on these screens varies depending upon the kind of customers they are trying to reach. Unlike regular television advertising in which a consumer is devoting more attention to the screen, these ads are designed to catch the eye of a busy passerby. The screens first started becoming popular about five years ago. Today, they come in all sizes and can be found everywhere from inside taxi cabs and elevators to malls and gas pumps.

At Milano Market, a deli in New York City, a new flat screen television above the counter flashes images of movie previews, trivia questions and local news. In one corner of the screen, the deli advertises its daily specials, which can be quickly changed by logging onto a Web site. The screen was installed by Danoo, a new California-based company that is currently launching these screens all over New York.

Surprisingly, it was not the advertising that interested Milano manager Domenick Galofaro in the new signs. Instead, he likes the screens for their entertainment value and their ability to distract customers from long lines.

“They really, really like it. I’m getting good feedback from them,” Galofaro said of his customers. “So while you’re waiting on line, you look at that for like 20 seconds, it was like 20 seconds you were never in the store.”

Other screens deliver ads that are less entertainment-oriented. Adspace Networks, a company that installs flat screens in malls, runs a six-minute loop displaying the top 10 best sales in the mall because its own research suggests that shoppers prefer that information.

“We have tested 17 different programming concepts for our screens,” said Bill Ketcham, the company's executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “The No. 1 thing people want to see is what’s on sale in the mall. … They’re not interested in fashion tips.”

So far, some studies of flat screen advertising have shown it can be very effective, said Raymond Burke, a professor at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

In 2001, Burke released the results of an empirical study he conducted of digital signs which found they can work better than the traditional ones. After putting the signs in storefront windows inside a mall, he tried changing the messages on them to target different types of shoppers. By day, he used messages aimed at older shoppers. At night, the messages were changed to appeal to the younger crowd that tends to view malls as a more social environment. The study found that digital signs increased store traffic by 23 percent and they also increased store sales by about 10 percent, he said.

Some digital advertising companies are continuing to study its effectiveness by piloting sophisticated new technology which allows them to measure how many times a person's head turns to view a screen and how long that glance lasts, he added.

Still, not everyone is fully convinced.

Don O’Donoghue, a general manager at the Black Bear Saloon in Stamford, Conn., said he thinks it’s still too early to know if the ads are working. A little over a year ago, a small local start-up company called Push Pop Media approached the bar and offered to put up the signs and allow Black Bear to market itself on the screens in exchange for the right to sell ad space.

Now when sports lovers watch a game at the bar, some of the flat screens display Black Bear ads for food and drink specials.

“With ours, we’ve had limited success,” he said. “It’s still new."

Although studies have suggested the screens can help business, they can also hurt it, said Burke. While too much of any form of advertising can have adverse effects, companies must be extra careful with digital screens because they can contribute to both “visual and audio” clutter.

“If through the signage we provide too much information or the wrong kinds of information, we can reduce the quality of the shopping experience for the consumer and they will shop somewhere else,” Burke said. “It’s this balancing act. On one hand, you want to create a level of stimulation and enjoyment to the consumer, but if you go too far, it becomes clutter. It becomes noise, and it becomes annoying to the consumer.”

That’s become the case for some people who walk past the flat screens at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J., on a daily basis. While the sound may attract the eye of newcomers, others get tired of it after awhile.

“I have to say, the sound is kind of annoying,” said Beth Connolly of Morristown, N.J., who began working at the mall this past summer. “It repeats the same jingle. It just never stops. It’s always blaring in the background.”

E-mail: sl1160@columbia.edu