Click on TV for ads

Stephen Baker

Just got off the phone with a Boston inventor named Neil Fairbanks. He’s patented an advertising technology that integrates Web links into a video. So say you’re watching an episode of Friends. (It’s easier at this stage if you’re watching it on your computer.) You can put the cursor on Ross’s red sweater and click, and you’re transported to the e-commerce Web site that can sell you that exact item.(Don’t worry. If you’re shorter or fatter than Ross, you can probably buy it in your own size.)

In the demo I saw, Fairbanks had the whole Friends apartment wired with these links. I didn’t follow them all, but it didn’t take long to get the idea. Click Monica’s hair and you go straight to Revlon, or maybe Head and Shoulders. Follow Chandler and – who knows? – you might end up at Weight Watchers. In another demo, I watched a Nascar event, where the links led to the car company sites.

Advertisers, we all know, are eager to avoid zappers. They want to put their products into shows and make them interactive. But how many viewers are going to want to interrupt what they’re watching for a shopping tour? OK, maybe QVC viewers will like it. But millions of TV watchers (including me) are moving to TiVo precisely to get away from ads.

Still, my thinking is that some form of these links will find their way into what we watch. But I’m betting that instead of clicking on things to buy, it’ll catch on in the context of games and contests. Imagine a contest where viewers who click on the 14 Disney items planted in a sitcom win a $50 discount at a Disneyland hotel. Or how about guessing contests for baseball fans watching a game? Predict Pedro Martinez’s pitches through an entire inning—curve, fastball, change, splitter. The fan who gets the most right wins a free dinner someplace.

Of course, part of the magic is that that fan, and everyone else hoping to win, has to sign up first. And the media company amasses a giant data base. They’ll even know which pitches we prefer.

Will Fairbanks get rich of of U.S. patent 6,636,237 B1? He says he’s talking to four major media companies. Whether he hits the jackpot or not, these links are going to become part of our lives as TV and the Internet mesh, and advertisers scrounge on these combined media to connect.

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