The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future

The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future

You'll be exposed to around 6,000 marketing messages today, according to researchers. You're looking at a few right now. Glance away from your computer and you'll see another one--a label on a bottle, a logo on a t-shirt, a billboard outside the window.

But as pervasive as it is now, marketers are working hard behind the scenes to make sure it's much, much worse in the future. Doing things like ...

Tracking Every Site You Browse and Every Show You Watch

Market research used to be pretty simple. You'd just put the new hamburger in front of a group of people and had them fill out a survey asking if they liked it, didn't like it and what degree of diarrhea it gave them. The problem of course was nobody told the truth on those things. For instance, they'll fill out surveys saying they want healthier food on the menu, then will continue to buy the Baconator.

So how's a poor market researcher supposed to get a straight answer out of you? Easy: Just collect the data of your personal habits without you ever knowing. It's kind of like the dude who sneaks around outside your wife's window at night, only they're peering in through your computer or TV screen instead, and hopefully there's less masturbating.

What They're Doing:
So for instance, your TiVo grants you the miracle of watch-on-demand television and skippable ads, but also tracks what you watch, right down to which scenes you rewound and replayed over and over.

But of course the web is light years ahead of TV in tracking your surfing habits. Google is already working on customizing its search results based on your personal browsing history, which requires only that it maintains a comprehensive database of every single thing you've ever tried to find on the web.

No big deal, right? After all, it's not like it would be embarrassing for you if all this information ever got out. You know, like when AOL made that information public on millions of its customers.

Speaking of AOL, they own a company called Tacoda which specializes in "behavioral targeting." Tacoda's technology is used on around 4,000 websites (which reach around 70 percent of the total internet audience). Every letter typed, every click or move of the mouse on the websites they're associated with is tracked, and they're hardly the only player in this game.

Oh, and how about BuzzMetrics? blogs, Facebook pages, message boards, chatrooms, Usenet groups--anywhere the internet denizens can post their leet-speak-filled opinions--are being monitored. The conversation is then fed into programs that calculate the current buzz or trends. Yes, believe it or not, that 20-page debate between two 13-year-olds about whether Batman could beat up Iron Man will help dictate what next year's marketing campaign will look like.

If You Think It's Bad Now ...
Pretty soon, that technique for tracking your habits will become just as common in the real world.

Those awesome GPS boxes for your car that prompt you with turn-by-turn directions? They also keep track of where you're going (maybe you heard the government wants to use the data to tax you, according to your driving habits).

They're developing refrigerators with the super-handy feature that it tracks what you have inside, reminds you when you're out, and lets you order more without leaving the house. Oh, also, it lets retailers track every single thing you buy, all via RFID chips embedded in the product packaging.

Hell, they're even coming out with a wide range of "smart clothes" with computer functions built in that can track all of your bodily functions. Soon vital data on testicular bunching, shifting and chafing can constantly be beamed straight from your boxers to a team of guys looking at a diagram of your nuts.

Custom-Made Shilling

The tricky thing about advertising is that no one ad appeals to everybody. Car companies run those ads every Christmas where it shows a dude buying his wife a new car as a gift, knowing that only a small sliver of the people who'll see it have the cash to give a $40,000 present, and that the rest couldn't even afford one of those huge red bows.

What They're Doing:
Companies like Visible World are out to solve that problem, looking to make personalized ads. These spots can be broken into interchangeable segments that can be recombined by your cable company based on data they've collected. It gives them countless variations on the same commercial, to carefully target them based on what they know about you.

So the high-income family may get an ad showing a man buying his wife a new diamond necklace, while the poor family next door will get the same ad except, but maybe with an added bit where the guy sells a kidney so he can afford it first.

If You Think It's Bad Now ...
Remember what we said about the refrigerator that keeps track of what brands you buy? Think how much advertisers will pay for that data. They can display the ads right on your fridge.

Or, even better, maybe your cell phone rings, you answer it and it's Starbucks offering you $1 off on a white chocolate, pumpkin and whiskey Frappuccino. Why that's what you always order, and you just passed a Starbucks a second ago. Thank the GPS in your phone, and Starbucks tracking your buying habits.

Of course, we're talking about a distant, hypothetical future here. And by that we mean they intend to have that exact program up and running in a year or two.

What could be creepier than that? Well Google realizes all that data they're collecting is limited to web-surfing habits. Why stop there? Luckily they've got a prototype system that will listen to the conversation going on around your computer and add it to their database.

Really, what could go wrong?

Fusing Ads and Culture

Advertisers figured out a long time ago that marketing takes more than simply telling us how great the product is, particularly when selling to the youngsters. Gone are the days when you could just stick a nicotine-addicted Fred Flintstone on TV during prime time and expect to have father, mother and junior all rush out to indulge in the rich full-bodied tobacco flavor of Winston cigarettes.

No, doing that still involves making some kind of argument in favor of the product, and that can be extra hard if your product is shitty. So how do they get around that?

What They're Doing:
The goal for marketers these days is to make their product an accessory to a certain lifestyle so that it becomes almost a requirement.

Take Mountain Dew, for instance. For years they went with odd, vaguely sexual sounding slogans, ("Dew It To It" and the near-pornographic classic "Mountain Dew ... It'll Tickle Your Innards") but eventually decided to latch themselves onto the burgeoning extreme sports culture.

Suddenly you couldn't turn on your TV without seeing some guy doing something incredibly retarded and dangerous with a Mountain Dew logo pasted on him. What does the drink have to do with sports? Not a damned thing. The shit isn't Gatorade. It's a completely arbitrary connection, and just to prove that point, Mountain Dew later attached itself to the absolute other end of the lifestyle spectrum: video games.

Why not? It works. Today, despite it tasting like piss mixed with orange drink, Mountain Dew is the most popular soft drink after Coke and Pepsi.

If You Think It's Bad Now ...
So you think you've got an alternative lifestyle? Are you a vegan? A punk rocker? A furry? Pedophile? It doesn't matter, within a couple of years, there will be a collection of brands that everyone in your group will cling to as part of their identity.

"Bullshit!" some of you say, "I'm an iconoclast, I'm hip and I reject your mainstream culture! You can't market to me."

Actually, your attitude makes you a member of a very lucrative and sought-after marketing segment. Just ask the makers of Jones Soda and Converse Chuck Taylors, they'll tell you where the money is.

In fact, if you want to see your future, look no further than current "urban" culture, most of which has been carefully concocted in corporate offices about 100 stories up from street level. They've got the process refined to a science. Watch as they took the most rebellious, disconnected, anti-mainstream culture possible (say, a young underground rap group singing about things like "a bloodbath of cops, dyin' in LA") ...

... and turned on the money hose. Before you know it, that fresh-faced young man at the bottom of the picture has a $100 million a year empire, his rappers signing endorsement deals with companies like Reebok and VitaminWater (which is in turn owned by Coca-Cola).

Repeat the process with other acts, to the point that corporate sponsorship becomes intertwined with the culture itself. Soon, something that began as the ultimate counterculture in the poorest New York neighborhoods will mutate the point that artists will rap without irony about how great a particular corporation's sneakers are, and how you should buy multiple pairs.

Going Undercover

So what can a person do in this environment? Dismiss all ads as lies and spin? How would such a person make their buying decisions? Well, by trusting their peers. They'll roll their eyes at a vodka ad on TV, but if their buddy declares it to be "the shit" 30 times in an evening before passing out on the kitchen table, there's a good chance they'll be convinced it's worth trying.

After all, it's not like marketers are going to, you know, hire people to pretend to be your peers and recommend things to you, right?

What They're Doing:
Oh, you know better than that by now. They call it undercover marketing. This is why virtually every product on, no matter how shitty, has that one really articulate, wildly positive review. This is why even horrible movies will have an early "leaked" review turn up on, echoing all of the points from the marketing campaign ("Stallone is back ... and better than ever!").

The marketers hire plants to generate buzz anywhere they can, in user reviews, on messageboards, in chatrooms ...

If You Think It's Bad Now ...
... at bars, in clubs and parties. That's right, undercover marketing is oozing into the real world.

So, say an attractive girl walks up to you in the street, tells you she's from out of town and asks if you would take a picture of her in front of a local landmark. As your brain desperately races to come up with something witty to say to her, you raise the camera to take the picture and notice that it's actually pretty damn nice. They just got you. That girl was hired by Sony to promote the new camera you're holding.

Sound paranoid? Well it turns out Sony has been doing it for years.

That type of advertising will only get more and more common and people will become more and more resistant to traditional ads. If you thought those "Hey, you're cute! Come check out my webcam!" spam emails were irritating, wait until you start running into their real-life equivalent in bars.

It's the ultimate evolution of advertising, to make the ads completely indistinguishable from regular human interaction. These will be regular folks on the street or sitting at their computers. Or maybe they'll even get you in on it. You can sell your next-door neighbor something and then he'll turn around and sell you something else right back. Marketers want to do the unthinkable: They want to make all of us one of them.

Getting In Your Head

So, how much more invasive can marketing get? They watch what we buy and eat and read and wear. What are they going to do, follow us into the shower?

What They're Doing:
Hey, good idea! Moen gave a group of people money to allow them to watch them shower for weeks, to examine their every move (the study hilariously concludes that "Consumers frequently have only one free hand to use in the shower ... ").

But at least those people knew they were being watched. Companies like EnviroSell have the job of lurking around stores and carefully watching people's habits as they shop (one conclusion they spotted: when one customer accidentally brushes the ass of another customer, they tend not to buy anything).

Well that's about as creepy as it gets, right? Where else could they possibly stick their nose?

If You Think It's Bad Now ...
Well, how about inside your skull? Tracking our habits is all fine and good, but for ad men it's not enough. They need to know, not just what you buy, but why you buy it.

Behavioral economists and scientists have teamed up to perform brain scans on volunteers to figure out just what makes the "buy it now" part of your brain light up. They want to know which neurons in your brain fire when ads are effective and which neurons fire when they're not.

At that point, all advertisers need to do is find out what subconscious cues it takes to make their product slip right past the part of you that thinks through buying decision before reaching for your wallet. Though it seems like they could have saved a few million dollars and just stuck some boobs in the ad, but, hey, it's their money.

Nathan Birch also writes the invasively cute webcomic Zoology.

For more examples of terrifying technology, read David Wong's rundown of The Next 25 Years of Video Games. Or, for a simpler piece of technology you should be scared of, watch this video about The REAL Reason Guns are Dangerous.
Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?