When science fiction stories describe a world of the future, it’s the story that grabs and holds our interest but it’s the little details that bring that world to life. How do the characters entertain themselves when they’re not battling to save the world? What do they buy and how do they buy it? What information systems tell them how to navigate their lives?
A few of those questions got me thinking about advertising.
Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was everything if you provided a product or service to a special clientele or the general public. At some point, some cynical soul decided it might be a good idea to put a sign that said “Blacksmith” above his door, just in case the smell of the forge, clang of iron, and giant anvils standing everywhere weren’t enough to clue people in. And then, if there were two smith’s in the same town, a family name on the sign would distinguish it from the competition, and maybe something like “official smith of His Lordship, the Duke” wouldn’t be amiss either.
Advertising really took off once the printing press became widespread. Even Will Shakespeare couldn’t count on an audience magically appearing—they had to be told where and when a performance would take place, along with a little sales pitch to draw them in. Before long, it wasn’t enough to just tell people that you provided a service, and why yours was better than others—you could actually create a market for your deliverables by persuading people they needed what you were offering, even if they didn’t…um, I mean, if they’d never realized it before. Snake oil salesman of all stripes have taken that to heart ever since, and advertising has become as slippery as politicians (who took to it with a vengeance, naturally).
Flyers and newspaper ads weren’t enough—they could be ignored—so some genius came up with the idea of interrupting content on radio and then television with commercials. It became a pact between advertiser and audience: free entertainment in return for paying attention to the ads. Not a bad deal, really. And it worked so well that before long we were subjected to ads attached to content we were already paying for (movie theatres, I’m looking at you). By then, billboards had been blocking scenery for decades, buses and other vehicles had become moving billboards, and even gullible people blithely allowed themselves to become mobile signage by wearing brand names on their clothing, somehow believing it gave them membership in the cool crowd.
The advertising bargain had broken down by then, and we never noticed. We no longer had to implicitly agree to be subjected to it—we had no choice.
Whoever gave advertisers the right to fill our every view, every moment of sound, everything we experience with their messages? It’s like the frog-in-a-pot story: heat the water slowly enough and it will never realize its danger until it’s cooked.
Defenders of advertising will tell you it’s a public service: informing people about products and services they might want. I don’t know about you, but if there’s something I actually need to buy, I can look up where and how to buy it in about thirty seconds with an online search. I don’t need, or want, somebody interrupting my life to tell me what they want me to want. My wife and I only watch streaming and pre-recorded content at home—no commercials. We mostly listen to public radio—no commercials. And we’ve opted to receive no flyers in the mail. Do I sometimes miss flipping through them? Sure. But my impulse purchases have gone way down.
What does all this have to do with the future? Well, as technology becomes ever more pervasive and invasive, so does advertising. Do you think it will be cool to walk past a billboard and have it address you by name and show an ad for stuff you really like? In fact, it’s already happening whenever you surf the internet or use social media, and personalized ads show up. Think about how much some company has to know about you to do that. Just add facial recognition and gait recognition capability to the billboards, and you’ve got a sales pitch just for you…that everyone walking nearby can also see. Watch out for the lamppost! Oops, too late. And forget about just enjoying the ambience of a neighbourhood street, because the next billboard will call out to you just as insistently, and the next, and the next. If regulators don’t prevent them, the billboards will send urgent messages to your phone telling you about the big shoe sale a block ahead. Might be kind of cool, you think? Until you get twenty such messages in a ten-minute walk to your favourite coffee shop.
Forget about movie stickers on bananas; what about when each section of orange, slice of melon, cross-section of cheese is imprinted with slogans? When your toaster etches your slice of bread with “30% Off Sale Today at…!” When your shampoo contains fluorescent glitter micro-particles that coalesce into product placements for everyone to read. So far, you’re allowed to turn your TV to a channel that doesn’t play commercials, but what about when your TV forces you to watch ad messages first whenever you turn it on?
I’ve written a novel about internet-capable brain augments. One of my speculations is that unscrupulous advertisers will figure out how to use them to directly stimulate the vision and auditory centres of the brain. Suddenly you see a giant bottle of [insert your favourite cola brand here] floating in front of your eyes and hear their latest jingle in your ears. I’ll leave you to imagine the results if it happens while you’re riding a bike, crossing a street, or about to descend some stairs.
Far-fetched, you think? Absolutely not, I promise you. We’ve already allowed ourselves to be subjected to advertising in virtually every aspect of our lives, in increasingly intrusive ways. If a method arises to directly access the minds of consumers, it will be used. Unless we act to prevent it. And I’m not talking about writing to your local politician (although it wouldn’t hurt)—it’s your money that talks. If you want to send a message to advertisers that it’s all too much, stop buying the products and services of the companies that use advertising methods you don’t like and tell them why. Shut off all the personalized advertising functions of your social media. Cancel all your rewards programs accounts. Boost privacy settings on all of your electronic devices.
I’m expecting too much, right? You like a lot of that personalized advertising, not to mention rewards points. And buying things gives you a buzz.
Yeah, I know. Which is why intrusive advertising has come this far, and will go every bit as far as we allow it to.
Do you feel the water getting hot yet?