If the walls could talk . . we'd be told what to buy

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WITH a quick scan of his retina as he enters the store, the screen in front of him zaps into action. "Welcome John Anderton," says a holographic advertisement. "You’ll find we still have those chinos in your size."

Of course, Anderton doesn’t blink. But then he is living in a hi-tech world where even murders can be predicted and stopped before they happen - such was the premise of Minority Report.

But was this trip to the store by Anderton - played by Tom Cruise - a piece of Hollywood computer trickery or an insight into the future of marketing?

It certainly seems like the latter if the advertising men have their way. We as consumers could soon be entering our favourite stores and, before even beginning to browse, we’ll be being sold the latest merchandise which they already know we’re suckers for because our previous purchases have all been logged.

Window shopping will also change as department stores employ electronic devices in their glazing to "whisper" advertisements for goods as we walk past.

As a result, it could mean that a trip to the supermarket or car showroom could soon become a psychological challenge with shoppers fighting subconscious urges manipulated by the marketeers.

And on top of all that, watching ads on television will change forever once the marketeers know for sure how to hit the specific receptive brain cells in our heads, leaving us unable to resist a purchase.

Already Lottery organisers Camelot and car maker Ford have hired teams of neuroscientists to carry out analysis of our grey matter to find out what really hits the spot. Attaching electrode-studded caps to their human guinea pigs they have been measuring their responses as they watch adverts on a TV screen, with the goal of identifying a "buy button" in the brain which can be targeted and triggered by future commercials. Camelot admits it used the technique to gauge consumer reaction to its recent Billy Connolly adverts. The ads were later dropped.

Other firms are also moving in a similar direction. Coca-Cola, Hallmark, AOL Time Warner and Johnson & Johnson have all employed a Harvard brain expert to understand consumer motivation. And researchers have established that a section of the brain just behind the top of the skull could hold the key to higher profits, as it’s linked to excitement, meaning brands which are able to stimulate activity in this area are more likely to make a sale.

"In the not-too-distant future, firms will be able to tell precisely if an advertising campaign or product redesign triggers the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory and action," says James Bailey, professor of organisational behaviour at George Washington University in Washington DC.

So will all of these technological advances enhance our shopping exper-iences, or just leave us feeling manip- ulated? Futurologist Ian Pearson is excited about the technological advances, but admits they are bound to be exploited by advertisers. "In the next few years, many of us will wear spectacles with head-up displays. These already exist, but are yet to become mass market," he says. "A projector in the arm projects an image on to a reflector in the lens, or into the eye. The user sees a large display space which could be used for all kinds of applications.

"When shopping for instance, stores could enhance particular items, overlay product information, or people could see an advert instead of just conventional packaging. This data could be broadcast by store transmission systems, or eventually even by chips in the packaging of a product of the shelf it sits on.

"Advertisers could make recommend-ations on new purchases to customers as they wander round, based on the sorts of things they have bought in the past."

HE adds: "Within a few years, some people may even wear "Teletubby" T-shirts, with display panels built into the clothing which could display moving graphics and videos. They could even be used to display adverts to other shoppers for a discount to the wearer."

Another innovation is "whispering windows" which attract customers into stores. Already John Lewis is set to use them in its Edinburgh store after a successful trial in Chelsea. The windows won’t just advertise goods but will also speak and play music to the browsing shopper. And the developers say they can even be used to make the shop dummies speak. The technology behind the windows was developed by the US Navy for fitting sonar devices to its submarines. Devices are attached to a window and triggered by an electronic signal when someone walks past, causing the window to vibrate - effectively turning the shop window into a giant speaker.

And it seems to work. Kevin Scully, the store’s visual merchandising manager, says the trial run has been working very well. "After installing whispering windows into our storefront, the number of people who stopped to view our window displays increased by 50 per cent. Sales of the products in the windows has also increased significantly."

Billboards in every town and along every motorway could also change thanks to new technology, quickly changing when they read your car number plate to tailor the ad to your needs.

Already in the United States, some roadside billboards are able to tell which radio stations passing cars are tuned to and then change the image on the sign to fit listeners’ profiles.

"We’re able to shift the advertisement to suit the people driving by," says John Henry Parker of Alaris Media Network Inc. The electronic billboards can change advertising displays every few seconds, running through a set series of video messages, and their sensors pick up radio frequencies from passing cars and trucks.

However, Ian McAteer, managing director of The Union advertising agency in Edinburgh and chairman of the Scottish Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says that while talk of technology revolutionising advertising is "exciting and sexy", the ideas in movies such as Minority Report are still science-fiction, and as far as the industry’s concerned, advertising is still all about persuasion.

"The idea that monitors can read your retina as you pass and then tailor messages specifically to you is still some way off," he says. "But there has been a lot of work done on eye movement on things like packaging to see where the eye connects. We also know that when people look at faces, they look at the eyes and mouth more than the rest. And even if we discover which part of the brain reacts to which adverts, the question is, of course, what to do with that information.

"Tailor-making advertising for specific consumers is not necessarily the way forward. Direct marketing was supposed to change the face of advertising because we knew what people wanted, who they were, where they shopped, but the consumer refused to be put into these pigeonholes by marketeers. I don’t think that will change."

One "new medium" for advertisers though - apart from technologies such as e-mail, the internet and videophone - is apparently the good old supermarket.

As Tim Mason, marketing director for Tesco, says: "Customers want to make their own choices and not be subjected to a hard sell as they shop. They must be consulted to ensure the new initiatives respond to their needs, not just to a brand manager’s enthusiasm for new tech-nology. Rapid advances in technology offer many opportunities to communicate more directly with individual customers, but also present a very real threat if wrongly executed. Loyalty cards help us understand our customers but we know crossing the line into "junk mail" would be fatal. Just because the technology exists does not mean it will be effective.

"Similarly in stores, playing the latest DVD release on plasma screens at checkouts may appear a good way to get customers to buy the film. But research shows that it slows down queues, frustrates customers and reintroduces the "pester power" problem that existed when confectionery was sold at the checkout."

HE adds: "Research into the most effective ways of commun-icating with customers shows that simple is still best. For example, one poster placed outside a supermarket for a fortnight delivered a 45 per cent increase in sales for a major biscuit brand, while a trolley panel for a healthcare product increased sales by 20.8 per cent over four weeks.

"Fifty-six per cent of customers say they note the adverts on petrol pump nozzles - and sales for everything from snacks to car insurance have increased accordingly. Customers see it as a communication tool rather than a hard sell."

Ian Pearson agrees that it will be in superstores where the brand names really fight it out. "With in-building global satellite positioning, shoppers can be provided with in-store navigation services. Smart trolleys or hand-held devices could notify them of special offers nearby, or help them find items on their shopping list. This service can link together the customer loyalty card, which allows the store to predict what the customer is likely to need. Store lighting could also be used to highlight the items individual customers are likely to be interested in as they walk past, dimming those that they have never shown any interest in." And, like something out of Minority Report, he adds: "A dynamic travelling computerised sales assistant could optimise the customer’s journey through the store."

It’s doubtful, though, that after he’s helped you choose which brand of bread you want to buy, that he’ll be able to pack your messages.