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You're on the phone with your sister in Paris, and she tells you she just met the boy of her dreams. As she begins to detail their first kiss, a three-tone jingle breaks in. There's a pause, and then a message about Planet Hollywood. When you return to your sister, you're still picturing a $10 hamburger, or maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger's dining room. What was she talking about?
It's a medium that gives a whole new meaning to "call waiting" brought to you by Cortex Telecom, one of two new ad-fueled long-distance services. These updated takes on Ma Bell operate by collecting the consumer profile information that marketers crave, and feeding targeted ad messages back to captive listeners.
On BroadPoint Communications, callers reserve two minutes of free long distance for every 10-to 15-second message they listen to before actually making a connection. On the somewhat more harrowing Cortex service, a 15-second ad interrupts the conversation every three minutes.
Leaders of both companies think phone talkers will respond appreciatively to the sponsors who pay their way, but Cortex founder Leon Cohen-Levy is also banking on the interruption itself as a powerful marketing tool. "You're much more receptive to an ad during a phone call, because you're listening to someone. Your emotions and thoughts are concentrated on verbal information," he says. "The subliminal part of having to speak-pause, speak-pause is fundamental to the success of the medium."
Advertisers may be intrigued by the possibility of bonding their messages to intimate neurological territory. But how does such a pattern impact the mind of the caller?
"I would never subscribe to that service," says Philip Lieberman, Brown University professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, and author of Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution. "It would be terrible," he continues. "When you listen to speech, you don't respond segment by segment. You take a big chunk and hold it in part of the brain, then, using everything you know about the message, you fill in the phonetic detail. If you were to be interrupted, not only would you lose your train of thought, but you would have trouble understanding what you just heard."
"You make a phone call to talk to someone; the last thing you want is to listen to ads," says Myron Uretsky, chair of information systems at New York University. He also points out that since the services will likely attract lower-income callers, advertisers may not be interested. "It's a question of how much people value their own time," says Uretsky. "This is not the wave of the future."
Still, according to Perry Kamel, president and CEO of BroadPoint, 90 percent of his registered customers (who now total 150,000) say they are completely or very satisfied with the service. Considering that eight minutes spent listening to ads would reserve an hour, or about $6 worth, of phone time on BroadPoint, the service may appeal to a large audience willing to buy phone calls with time rather than money.
For those fearful of ubiquitous advertising intrusion, there is a plus side to "permission-based" media, which drive home the idea that consumers are entitled to something in exchange for attentive time. Kamel believes audiences will start to approach one-sided marketing practices like running commercials in movie theaters without dropping the ticket price with more scrutiny. "In my view," he says, "advertising that takes away without giving something in return will be under attack."