From malls to gas pumps, TVs are becoming a ubiquitous part of local retail landscape; are consumers facing information overload?
Judy Watten was having trouble concentrating on "The Call of the Wild." Dr. Phil kept interrupting her thoughts.
"It's frustrating as hell," the Kenwood woman said, sitting on a bench inside Santa Rosa Plaza with a copy of Jack London's classic in her hands. "Do they not want us to read books?"
Above Watten, Dr. Phil's familiar visage beamed across a large flat-screen TV. The pop psychologist spoke about living one's beliefs, his words echoing the length of the mall where 20 TVs created a miasma of sight and sound.
The high-definition Samsungs represent the latest invasion of video into public places once considered off-limits to TV. Many grocery stores, airports, banks, elevators - even gasoline pumps - now broadcast programming mostly geared toward selling stuff.
Stung by technologies, such as TiVo and the Internet, which allow people to skip or ignore ads, marketers are bringing television directly to consumers in the places where they shop, lounge, bank or fill up, a trend some applaud and others go haywire over.
"It's unstoppable," said Simon Badinter, chairman and chief executive at the Medias and Regies Europe and North American unit of Publicis, the world's fourth-largest advertising company. "I think people want to be entertained and clients want to reach shoppers at the point of sale."
Publicis has partnered with the Simon Property Group, the nation's largest owner of shopping malls, including Santa Rosa Plaza, to create the OnSpot Digital Network.
The network is aimed at getting people to pay attention to ads at the moment when they are most primed to make a purchase.
A 30-second commercial on an estimated 2,000 screens in 50 malls costs $350,000 a month, which likely rules out the possibility of local content. Sprinkled in with the ads are light features on fashion, entertainment and lifestyles.
The strategy appears to work: An Arbitron study found 41 percent of customers said they made unexpected purchases after hearing in-store messages.
"We got a very good feel from consumers embracing this technology," said Stewart Stockdale, Simon's chief marketing officer. "Our primary focus is to enhance the shopping experience and the research was very positive."
The company tested sound levels on the TVs to make them more "complementary" with the ambient noise in the mall, Stockdale said.
On the morning Watten read a book while waiting for a friend to finish shopping, the TV noise inside the relatively deserted Santa Rosa mall overwhelmed other sounds. But on Friday, when the throngs filled the space, the TVs emitted no sound at all.
One might argue that TVs are a natural fit in malls, which already are meccas to advertising, some of it loud and garish. But as TVs creep into a wide array of public places, some consumers complain about sensory overload and unwanted advances from the digital world.
At Albertson's grocery stores, large TVs loom over the produce and deli sections. Smaller, and much harder to ignore, screens are at each checkstand.
"We're bombarded," said a woman outside the Montgomery Village Albertson's who identified herself as Ladonne. "I stay out of the mall, and I shop at Whole Foods most of the time."
Older adults in general seemed less pleased with the new technology, compared with younger people who've grown up with video games, the Internet and iPods.