Maybe my Samsung "smart TV" isn't so smart after all. Doesn't it know I don't like pop-up Internet ads?
It happened last Sunday during my usual binge of football watching. Along came the inevitable commercial for Dunkin' Donuts. Then, without warning, the image on the screen receded, like a wide-screen movie shrinking down to a "letterbox" style. And on the left side of the screen, a pink-and-orange sidebar appeared, a pop-up ad urging me to use my remote control to sign up for a special offer from Dunkin'.
I stared at the screen in dismay, as though I'd just seen Tom Brady throw a pick. Connect millions of TVs to the Internet, and this is what happens — a brand-new way to pester us.
I got on the phone Monday morning with Dunkin' Donuts headquarters in Canton. Scott Hudler, the company's vice president of global consumer engagement, told me that the pop-up ads are being tested in cooperation with Delivery Agent Inc., the San Francisco company that invented the underlying technology.
About 20 million viewers with Internet-connected smart TV sets can see the pop-ups because these sets come with Delivery Agent's ShopTV software. This app detects when a Dunkin's commercial is playing, then automatically displays the pop-up sidebar. By using the TV remote, a viewer can enter a cellphone number into the sidebar. Dunkin' Donuts then sends a text to the phone, letting the consumer sign up for a Dunkin's DD Perks loyalty card.
Hudler likes the idea because it lets consumers respond instantly to his company's commercials.
"The ad pops up and there's an immediate call to action," he said.
But he added an ominous note: "Until you act on it, the option will come up."
In other words, sign up or the pop-ups will continue. To my relief, Hudler added that individual ads can be shut off. But I found that the ShopTV app on my TV can't be switched off completely or deleted. The only sure way to end all pop-ups is to disconnect the set from the 'Net.
Somehow I'd missed other ShopTV ads. That's because there haven't been very many of them so far; they've begun to appear as commercials for Reebok International of Canton and online retailer Overstock.com. One early version ran back in February during the Super Bowl, enabling smart-TV viewers to purchase underwear from retailer H&M. The ads have even appeared in the middle of TV programs such as the Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week" shows.
ShopTV's not the only pop-up purveyor. Earlier this year, my TV began displaying ads for Samsung's own sports app at odd moments during football games. Granted, it's a pretty nice app that lets you see scores and stats from other games without changing channels. But I don't relish an endless flow of on-screen come-ons whenever I flip on the set.
Not that interactive TV advertising is an altogether bad idea. Fans of the Home Shopping Network expect to buy things, so it makes sense for HSN to offer a feature that lets you order items by pushing the OK button on your cable remote. Just set up an account on the HSN website, and you can make purchases instantly from your sofa.
Also, because most people now watch TV with a mobile device nearby, Delivery Agent has partnered with the popular app Shazam, which can identify TV shows by listening to the soundtrack. You've seen commercials with a Shazam logo at the bottom of the screen. Launch the app, and your phone displays a video rerun of the ad. Not very useful — yet. But they've been working on a version that'll let you instantly buy an advertised item via your phone.
I'm fine with that idea. But there are already too many TV-show promos swooping across my screen without adding pop-ups to the mix.
Even Delivery Agent chief executive Mike Fitzsimmons agreed that consumers will get sick of the ShopTV ads. That's why he hopes to kill them off as soon as possible.
The pop-ups, he said, are only there to get us comfortable with TV shopping: "I see this as a great opportunity to get consumers trained."
Eventually, Fitzsimmons hopes to make most TV commercials compatible with ShopTV. Then, TV makers will just put an extra button on remotes, marked "shop." When you see something you like in a commercial, you'll just press the button and buy.
"I think as consumers get accustomed to this, they'll be able to activate that button on their remote control without being prompted," Fitzsimmons said.
Sounds wonderful, but first we must all be indoctrinated in the joys of TV shopping. So grab your remotes and hang on. Here come the pop-ups.