By Bill Borde
In one of J.G. Ballard’s short stories, advertising hoardings beam rays into the minds of consumers, causing them to swerve off the motorway to stock up on cigarettes. Much of science fiction uses motifs of corporate logos and intrusive advertisement-mongering. There is almost a consensus that Nike swooshes will be projected onto the clouds while Utterly Butterly commercials play out in our dreams.
When authors construct these dystopian futures, they are reflecting a contemporary apprehension about the power of advertising. But the advertising blimps that hover over L.A. in Blade Runner, or Minority Report-style hoardings that know your name, will probably never come to pass precisely because there are so unsettling. The outlines of an alternative future are beginning to be discernible.
Currently, the most common kind of advertising works by attracting attention through providing content that we want to consume and then interrupting it with the sponsor’s message. A TV drama stops for the advertisement break, a parade of products get your attention, the TV program resumes. In a newspaper, adverts are dispersed between the writing so that by necessity you will see them as you read.
As the internet delivers us into futurity, it seems likely that more subtle kinds of advertising will become the norm. While advertising companies have been wrong-footed by the web in a number of ways, they are at the point of figuring out formats that work online—and they do not involve the ‘interruptive’ advertising just described. In this new landscape, we can anticipate three changes that will mean advertising and entertainment will converge into one.
On the Internet, There Are No Rules
Currently, there are an array of rules that regulate the ways advertising is presented to consumers. Many of them are designed to keep TV programs separate from the advertisements—product placement is illegal, and there are numerous regulations about co-branding, sponsored prizes, and so on.
On the internet, these rules do not apply. Newspapers have already made the transition to the web, and TV will not be far behind. Other rules, set by Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft might apply, but all of those companies have their interests fundamentally aligned with generating advertisement revenue. The laws designed to stop us from being buried under an avalanche of advertisements are about to become anachronisms.
On the Internet, You Must Choose to Devote Your Attention to Advertisements
One of the most important changes associated with having our entertainment and information mediated by the web is that the sheer quantity of stuff available gives users an enormous range of choice. That choice includes the option to ignore adverts. Far from being the end of the commercial messaging, advertising can respond to this blow like a horror movie monster, and come back in an even more invincible form.
Once you had to sit through adverts every third song on commercial radio, because there was no alternative. This model does not work on the internet, and streaming music service Spotify is proving it. Spotify cannot find a sustainable business model based on advertising because there are too many advertisement-free alternatives: YouTube, Last.FM, Pandora. The same is true for video. You do not see many YouTube advertisement breaks. In fact, YouTube has recently introduced a new service allowing users to skip through the adverts that appear at the beginning of some videos—otherwise people move on to be entertained somewhere else.
The solution the advertisement agencies have found is to make the entertainment and the advert one and the same thing. For example, advertisement agencies might recommend a brand that should sponsor (pay for entirely) a film. When the film, which is carefully tailored to evoke the brand ethos, is released, the sponsor company will have monopoly rights to interviews with the stars, its branding at the premiere, and its logos on the adverts for the film. In short, the film will be the advert.
Recently, Old Spice won several awards for its hugely popular advertising campaign based around YouTube videos. It did not, however, pay for adverts to be inserted into popular YouTube videos—it launched its own videos, which were themselves both advertising and entertainment. This mechanism will allow commercial interests to overcome the issue of consumers choosing not to listen to or view their adverts.
On the Internet, the Shop is Only One Click Away
The picture painted so far is one of advertisers taking direct control of TV programs, films, and radio shows, and taking advantage of the lack of restrictions on the internet to integrate promotional material within the content itself.
There is one more link to add to the chain. If you have a television series produced by an alliance of clothing manufacturers as a platform to promote their wares, then why not make that TV program a portal to their respective online stores? It is the next logical step. Most importantly, it allows them to analyse how effective the TV program is at shifting shoes, shirts, and skirts, and to adjust the program to maximize conversion.
There is a legitimate concern that people subject to such sophisticated persuasion will have their ability to make rational choices about how they spend their money undermined, especially when the barrier to entry is as low as a single mouse click. In this respect, the new mode of advertising described here is different in degree from the old kind, but this concern has always existed to some extent.
But the new model raises a completely fresh concern: would not it just be more civilized for a nation’s cultural life to revolve around something other than deliciously crunchy breakfast cereals and not believing it is not butter? Even if you do think the benefits of bacterial yogurts are of paramount importance, the transition from entertainment and factual information that was once merely interrupted by adverts to content, which is simply a shop front, should be cause for concern.
As mentioned earlier, the internet offers many choices, so will not people just choose not to watch these advertainments? No doubt there will be ways to avoid advertising, but high quality entertainment costs a lot of money, and the big budgets will come from brands’ advertising budgets, as they always have. Avoiding programs made by brands will be the equivalent of refusing to watch ITV.
When the advertisement budgets once spent on TV start are reallocated to the online sector, a whole tranche of persuasive techniques will unleashed, and many of them ought to feel a little intrusive. Why does Red Bull want to be my friend, even on Facebook? How has this advert been targeted to me?
While these points are frequently discussed, what goes relatively unmentioned is the removal of the barrier that once existed between creative or editorial decisions on the one hand and commercial interests on the other. The future might not see you swerving off the motorway to buy cigarettes, but you could find yourself clicking through to discounted whisky every time you see Mad Men’s Don Draper spark up. Or perhaps he will be tucking into a Muller Fruit Corner, depending on who buys the franchise….
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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