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Mini's billboards zoom in on drivers

A Mini Cooper S at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich.

KAI RYSSDAL: Here's another one of those science fiction meets reality moments. The company that makes those zippy little Mini Cooper is launching a new ad campaign today. Special billboards will use RFID chips to display personalized messages to Mini drivers as they go by.

Nice trick and all, but we asked Marketplace's Alisa Roth to find out why the company's advertising to its own.


ALISA ROTH: There's a scene in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller Minority Report where Tom Cruise's character walks through a shopping mall and is pelted with personalized ads.
PERSONALIZED ADS: Good evening, John Anderton . . . John Anderton, You could use a Guinness right about now.

The new Mini Cooper billboards use the same concept, though they're meant to be fun, not creepy.

Here's how they work: drivers in the four roll-out cities filled out questionnaires with information like birth dates and special interests. They're given a tag with RFID technology inside. So when they drive past a billboard, it'll flash a personal message, like "Happy Birthday, Alisa."

Trudy Hardy works in marketing at Mini Cooper.

TRUDY HARDY: It's about making them feel that this is a brand that really cares about them and really treats them special. And that's the one thing that, you know, nobody can take away from you, is the community around this Mini brand.

Mini Cooper drivers tend to be a loyal bunch. There are websites, blogs and clubs dedicated to their tribes.

Karen Benezra is editor of Brand Week magazine. She says the company, which is owned by BMW, is taking advantage of that.

KAREN BENEZRA: Word of mouth is one of the most successful means of selling their goods to consumers and have them tell their friends and family members about it.

Some worry that digital billboards add unnecessary distractions for drivers, and a few cities have even banned them.

Others are asking if a hacker or technical glitch could send messages like the one a blogger suggested: "Jim, nice to see you finally emerge from your mother's basement."

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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