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Welcome to Marketing Nirvana

In the late 1980s, Time Inc., among the nation’s greatest senders of junk mail, figured out, in an epochal target marketing advance, how to replace “occupant” on each letter with the actual name of the recipient. A decade later, digital media figured out how to target relevant ads to specific users (if you’ve recently bought a shirt, by gum, you’ll see more shirts ads).

Such was the revolution in advertising: not only could an advertiser zoom in on a customer, the advertiser no longer had to pay for people who were unlikely to become customers. Television, with all ad spots seen by all viewers, remained the outlier — excluded from the single largest pool of advertising money: direct marketing budgets — another reason why its end times have become a regular prediction.

Well, voilà! Albeit quite a long-time-coming voilà.

When senior executive Michael Kubin joined Invidi, a start-up proposing to embed targeting software in cable boxes in 2003, “it seemed,” said Kubin, “like a revolution was about to happen.”

Twelve years later, with the WPP-Google-DirectTV-Dish Network-NBC-Verizon-backed company’s software shortly to reach two-thirds of the nation’s set-top boxes and smart TV households — finally overcoming software and industry intramural issues, as well as the reliable resistance of salesman who are already selling out their inventory, thanks — it may be.

Sitting in a Greek restaurant on West 44th Street in Manhattan, Kubin and Howard Fiderer, Invidi’s product manager, both 60-somethings with long media careers, seem quite unlike the usual promoters of technological transformation. And yet, here they are, more surprised then triumphant, on the cusp of advertising’s holy grail: absolute television addressability.

That is, in long-fretted-about dystopian terms, your television will know who you are, what you like and who you vote for, and can individually send you an ad tailored to your desires.

Now, of course, that long-feared future is perfectly commonplace in the digital world. We are all targets of constant commercial messages that reach us through complex data triangulation. And, it should be said, none of this Big Brother stuff has turned out to be all that sinister — perhaps because it’s not that effective.

And therein lies the problem, and thwarted promise, of direct marketing. You can know everything about a person, full data omniscience, and yet, led to water, he or she still won’t drink. An infinitesimal number of people opened Time Inc.’s personally addressed envelopes, and now only meager numbers click on or pay attention to targeted digital advertising on junked up and confusing screens, or in tiny mobile message units.

Invidi’s proposition — even in what may be the waning days of television sets — is that if you combine Big Brother targeting with television, the only information medium that seems to have the power to defy distraction and focus a viewer’s attention on an actual sales message, you’ve changed the TV and advertising game.

The first casualty could be Donald Trump.

Politics has always been the finest direct marketing laboratory — once vastly advancing the science of direct mail — because it defines the cost issues of changing a few people’s minds. It’s too expensive to try to change the minds of the decided or mostly decided, so the job is to identify the already decided who might need reminding, the wobbly who might be pushed over the line, or the incensed with whom you have an issue that might align. Waste in TV advertising is a key political issue: An ad on a local market news show for a Republican primary candidate is going to reach Democrats, whose vote you can’t get but whose eyeballs you’d have to pay for anyway. Worse, in the New Hampshire primary, with its spillover TV market, you have to pay to reach Massachusetts voters.

And yet political television ads, with drumbeat urgency, compelling insinuation, and black and white conflict, are peculiarly effective, far preferable, even with their waste, to the precise targeting of digital, with little or no emotional impact. Hence, the first big test of addressability (its limited debut was a 2012 election year partnership between DirecTV and Dish) is the quadrennial direct marketing festival: a presidential primary and then swing states in the national presidential campaign.

In this, Trump plays a broad, expensive, hard-to-target national brand campaign, while his opponents now have an ever-more economical way to increase the effectiveness of their “spend” by precisely targeting demographically ideal, issue-focused, never-miss-an-election Republican voters. Jeb Bush can intimately reach all 25-to-40-year-old college-educated women with children in designated swing counties who voted in the last Republican primary and drive a foreign car — and not disturb or pay for anyone else.

The second casualty is Nielsen, which the TV industry believes is less and less able to keep track of TV’s real audience.

Television has always been sold on Nielsen’s third-party authentication of a statistical model of audience size, age and gender demographics. But with addressability, you don’t buy ratings, you buy actual results, not just overall numbers, but people with specific, granular attributes. “The odds of getting who you want,” says Fiderer, “are 100%.”

What follows from here, down a further slippery slope of privacy concerns and ever-more aggressive marketing, is a new relationship between television and digital media. Digital media, poor at attention holding, with ever-falling ad rates, is, nevertheless, superior at identifying and tracking. It knows the target but doesn’t have the payload to hit it.

That’s the media nexus — some ultimate convergence in which a single customer, triangulated by public and private databases and vast digital profiling, is caught, on a screen of choice in a maximally relaxed, open and attentive state of mind in front of The Good Wife, and offered a product or candidate to her certain liking.

“And,” says Kubin, “that’s nirvana, in marketing terms.”

Michael Wolff, USA TODAY