August 23, 2016
Filtrie is a free service that lets you limit which TV ads you watch. Its service works by allowing consumers who provide demographic data to determine which TV commercials they watch or filter out. Filtrie selects ads that are most relevant or appropriate—or deletes offensive ones—based on your user profile. Viewers can control commercial content according to their values, tastes, and interests. Parents can use the system to screen out ads that are inappropriate for kids or ones they themselves find distasteful.
A Brief History of TV Advertising
Launched in November 2015, Filtrie has gone through many incarnations. Cofounder and CEO, Jim Birch, explained that he wrestled with the idea, the format and execution over the last 15 years. The rough concept occurred to Birch during the first wave of dot-com fever, when companies like Pets.com and Webvan, with slim revenue and hefty losses, were going public at ridiculous valuations:
“I knew it wasn’t sustainable,” said Birch. “But it got me thinking about TV advertising—how dominant but ineffective it was.”
At the time, he was working as head of business development at Sarnoff Corp., the company that created the first color televisions, handling licensing and technology transfer primarily in digital media and displays. When thinking about how to deliver individualized ads to individual viewers, a few things jumped into focus for Birch. Firstly, he couldn’t rely on giant cable operators or satellite TV companies to carry any system he invented; he’d seen how Comcast flirted with TiVo, then decided to create its own DVR. Secondly, he realized that the Internet could bypass the airwaves as a viable distribution path for ads. Finally, it came to him that biometric detection in a remote control might be a way to detect one user from another, in order to deliver a targeted ad. The problem? The technologies weren’t ready, bandwidth wasn’t yet what it is today, and the biometric device was years away. Besides, the tech party had come and gone.
Birch left Sarnoff, but never gave up on his idea. He thought: instead of an implantable device in a remote, why not exploit the cellphone? Even in 2004, before the widespread embrace of smartphones, mobile devices were putting out useful information in the form of signals to towers. Birch filed an initial disclosure, followed by a series of patents. He already knew the inside of that business as VP of business development at TechPats, where he acquired and managed IP for clients.
Addressable Advertising a Bygone Era?
According to Birch, Filtrie will revolutionize TV advertising for both viewers and sponsors by providing real-time, accurate information about who is watching what program, when and for how long. The service represents a vast improvement over the paper diary, the method still used by Nielsen, which dominates market research but has caused a revolt by many cable operators claiming the rating service fails to account for niche audiences.
Filtrie represents a move beyond addressable advertising—which tries to segment audiences and serve them relevant commercials according to demographic, behavioral, geographic, and other differences. Birch wants to replace addressable advertising with customized advertising where consumers can set limits on TV ads based on their preferences and values. Advertisers will be able to reach specific individuals by known demographic and behavioral screening, showing commercials based on who’s actually watching.
Consider Monday Night Football—a big opportunity for a company like Budweiser to send targeted ads to millions of Americans. A commercial like “Bud & Burgers” might appeal to most men watching the game. But what about one-third of the audience: women? Perhaps they could be served a “Girls’ Night Out” spot, says Birch. Foreign-born Americans might have an ad delivered in their native language. And for underage kids? Because beer companies have come under fire for targeting that group. A beer ad can be substituted by a public-service replacement that encourages them to avoid alcohol until age 21.
Filtrie avoids the risk of an ad embarrassing or offending a viewer. “A friend of mine was in a pediatrician’s office with her child, watching HGTV,” said Birch. “All of a sudden, up came a preview of Fifty Shades of Grey.” Birch insists he’s not judging anyone:
“We let people decide what their values are and shape the TV advertising around that.”
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