Craig Fellenstein was sipping coffee in front of his TV one morning when the annoying jingle for Bob's Furniture tipped him over the edge. "I said, 'Man, I wish there was a button I could push so I would never see this again,' " he recalls. Since Fellenstein is a chief architect at IBM and part-time inventor, he was well-placed to make that happen.
He sketched out an idea pretty quickly. Every ad travels with an electronic "header" from set-top box to TV. Fellenstein designed a way to trap that packet and effectively blacklist it. Viewers could use their remotes to filter any ads they didn't want to watch again. When the TV identified the offending Bob's Furniture spot, it would either go blank or switch temporarily to another channel.
Fellenstein believes cable services could resell his technology for $1 a month. And TV networks could use it to track commercials' effectiveness. If thousands of viewers zap Bob, the network could pressure the advertiser to try something new.
The prospects for Fellenstein's invention (he filed a patent application last January) are unclear. Advertisers, of course, will fight anything that threatens to come between folks and their pitches. But TiVo and similar technologies have already conditioned viewers to expect time-shifting as part of the everyday viewing experience.
Fellenstein says he doesn't care if his invention offends advertisers — say, his employer, IBM, which spent $301 million on ads last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. But IBM holds the cards: It owns the rights to all his patents.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.