So it's only natural, then, that pitchmen are dreaming up ways to hawk their wares – everything from music to Big Macs to contact lenses – over the tiny screens of mobile phones. Add a dash of the global positioning system, which soon will reach every phone, and companies have the power to target individuals at specific times and locations, say, right when they pass a certain restaurant at lunchtime.
But it's probably nine months to a year before ads start popping up on cell phones. Nihal Mehta, founder and chief executive of Ipsh, a San Francisco mobile marketing company, thinks it will take that long for such brands as McDonalds and Procter & Gamble to build databases of a half-million or a million mobile phone numbers. They acquire them from willing consumers, who type in a five-digit word or number known as a "short code" that acts like a URL on the Internet, and send it as an SMS message to the advertiser, who responds with a sweepstakes offer, free ring tone or coupon.
Ipsh has run 400 ad campaigns like these since 2001 for British Airways, Budweiser, Dunkin' Donuts, Kellogg's, HBO, Reebok, Universal Pictures and others, who spent $5,000 or less four years ago but now as much as $150,000 for a single campaign. One of the company's largest deals was for Starburst, which put the short code "juicy" on millions of packs and is giving away a wide-screen TV. The contest, launched April 1, lasts till the end of the year, three times longer than the typical campaign. Both McDonalds and Johnson & Johnson have campaigns planned for this summer that will include TV commercials to promote a short code.
"We're finally seeing a significant tipping point," Mehta says. "People aren't just testing it anymore, they're starting to see return on investment."