5 Sci-Fi Ad Techniques That Are About to Make Life Creepier
We are in the middle of a great cultural arms race between advertisers with tons of money and state of the art technology and the common man's ability to ignore the ads those advertisers create. You've seen hundreds of ads today -- how many did you actually remember?
Don't think for one second that ad executives are giving up. It's all about using futuristic technology to make their ads more and more invasive. That's how we've wound up with ...
Ads That Whisper in Your Ear
So you're strolling down the street, just minding your own business, when you suddenly pass by a billboard. You pay it the exact same attention you pay to every cityscape ad, which is an amount somewhere between "jack" and "shit." That is, until you suddenly hear a creepy-ass female voice whispering right in your ear:
"Who's there? Who's there? ... It's not your imagination."
"Well, may as well give up everything and become another statistic."
Startled, you turn around to realize that nobody is about to violate your personal space. In fact, there's no one close enough to be able to deliver a whisper. You see somebody walking down the sidewalk and shout, "Did you hear that?" to which they answer, "Hear what?"
Just as you decide that the last of your sanity has finally snapped and that you should probably talk to somebody about meds, your eyes are drawn to the billboard we mentioned earlier ... which reads:
98 percent of Americans don't yet realize advertisers have the balls to go there.
The good news is that the voice in your ear was no ghost, nor an auditory hallucination. It's just a device sitting seven stories up, utilizing a technique called sound from ultrasound, which basically enables it to shoot sound over distances to project it as a ghost voice right into your ear.
A company called Holosonics has developed a device called the Audio Spotlight as a tool that allows them to direct commercial audio to a specific spot without anyone else in the area being disturbed. And when we say "developed," we mean "applied a hazardous military-grade technology." The Audio Spotlight is basically a LRAD (long-range acoustic device), which is used in the field to, we quote, "send messages, warnings and harmful, pain-inducing tones over longer distances than normal loudspeakers." It's kind of a ... sound laser? We guess?
If that pain-inducing part didn't ring your alarm bells, it is worth noting that the LRAD is basically a crowd control weapon. In the hands of the notoriously responsible and well-adjusted marketing people.
"GO BACK TO YOUR HOMES. THERE ARE MANY MORE TWINKIES TO EAT."
So while we're kind of grateful they're only going for whispers and harmless sound projection at the moment, we're also kind of worried what happens when the company lands its first deal on promoting, say, painkillers or adult diapers.
First we weaponize the brown note, then we capitalize on it.
Billboards and Posters That Watch You Back
We guess it's no surprise that they felt the need to upgrade billboards; they have to be the most primitive form of advertising that still exists. They're huge, ugly signs that disrupt the landscape, and they barely seem to work as advertisements.
Think about it -- you can't even look at one along the highway without distracting yourself from your drive. And they're the most poorly targeted of all ads -- you'll see a billboard from a local doctor or clinic and wonder what percentage of the people driving by that one particular billboard happen to be looking for a urologist at that moment. And even if they are, will they remember the name and number of the clinic later, considering they can't write it down because they're trying to fucking drive? It seems like any billboard short of "Dunkin' Donuts, Next Exit" is an exercise in futility.
But what if that billboard could, say, scan and recognize you? And instead of just trying to shotgun passing traffic with some random advertisement, the digital screen would change to a different ad based on who's driving by? An ad that you might actually find interesting -- or at least, what it assumes you would find interesting, based on gender, age and ethnic stereotypes.
Doesn't that sound great? No, we didn't think so either. Well that's too bad -- seeing as it's all happening right now.
In 2010, Japanese electronics company NEC installed digital billboards that utilize facial recognition technology in Japanese shopping malls. They are able to look right back at the passersby, scanning their faces with a built-in camera and delivering ads suitable to their age and gender (although there is a slight error margin, which would seem to mean the chance for unintentional insult and/or hilarity is always present).
Incontinence pads aren't really our age bracket, but they happened to come in useful just then.
As a backup creep-out, Japan is also trial-running vending machines that utilize the same technology (along with keeping track of weather conditions) to recommend drinks to customers.
It's still very primitive. Right now all they'll offer us is vodka and tears.
While the companies developing the technology claim the billboards will not be storing any of the images they gather, they do admit to storing data. We ... suppose that's OK. It's mainly just creepy because it's a form of communication that has always been one-way up to now. It's kind of like knowing that in the future, the girls in the porn you watch may be returning your stare, trying their damn best to suppress a laugh.
And in case you think this is all just a Japan thing, it's totally not. And this isn't just billboards, either. It works for signs of all sizes. For instance, take a look at this Amnesty International ad:
This bus stop poster displays a happy couple while you're looking at it, but as soon as you avert your eyes, the attached scanner that, by the way, has been keeping track of your goddamn eyeballs all along, suddenly changes the poster into a scene of domestic violence that you sort of detect from the corner of your eye. Good luck explaining your ensuing freakout to the authorities.
Is this a PSA or a promise?
The moral of the story: Even the most righteous of messages can be turned into a trip to the funny farm if it's delivered by goddamn HAL 9000.
Digitally Editing Product Placement Into Old TV Reruns
Product placement isn't a new thing -- hell, its history dates back to the 19th century, so it's hardly a shock for us to turn on the television for a slice of blatant advertising sluttery right there in the middle of our favorite show.
"I'm sorry about your wife ... not being able to drink the new and improved Dytrix Blue! Mmm, BLUE."
And is it really so bad? It's not that jarring to see a sitcom character using, say, an iPod, when you can see the same thing 20 times during your real-life morning commute. And is it really any more distracting to have the gang from The Office eat at an Outback Steakhouse than to have them make up some fictional restaurant chain?
But now imagine you go back to watch an old rerun of Seinfeld you've seen a dozen times, one you can pretty much recite from memory ... only now Jerry suddenly has an iPod in his hand. Or something else that didn't exist at the time.
Like a rude soup vending machine.
Welcome to the innovative new world of "dynamic product placement."
Same scene, different ad.
A company called SeamBI (Seamless Brand Integration) has been digitally inserting product placement into reruns for 20th Television, on shows like How I Met Your Mother and My Name Is Earl. And if you thought we were joking about the anachronistic "iPod in 1995 TV show" thing, that sort of thing is exactly what dynamic product placement is for -- inserting current products into shows too old to have featured them.
That's why if you recently watched a five-year-old episode of How I Met Your Mother, you saw a TV in the background playing an ad for the 2011 movie Bad Teacher:
Both starring Jason Segel, whose head is then digitally retouched to explode.
It doesn't matter if the show specifically takes place in a timeline that would explicitly prohibit that ad from making any sense. They've got bills to pay, baby.
And don't take the above example to mean this technology is limited to the TV screens and billboards in the backgrounds of scenes -- it totally isn't. Things like cellphones and beverages can also be swapped out. SeamBI claims they'll even be able to change the cars the characters drive in the future, so don't be surprised if Sean Connery is rocking a Prius the next time you watch an old Bond movie. Hell, then you can get Rambo wearing a TapouT T-shirt throughout First Blood, and Breakfast at Tiffany's will consist solely of Double Downs and Red Bull.
Eavesdropping Through Your Computer
Tired of being bombarded with sci-fi marketing messages from all directions, you decide to spend the rest of the day indoors idly browsing the Web. Sure, there are commercials and whatnot, but you're well-trained in the art of tuning them out.
It's just a matter of smashing your head against the wall in the right place.
Then your roommate walks in and says, "You know what I wish I had? A blanket for my face." Just as you are about to turn around and tell him that he is too stoned for conversation, a pop-up ad appears on your computer, inviting you to buy a Face Blanket at Getyourfaceblankethere.com.
"It's full of BOOgains!"
Ha! You think. It's almost like it can hear us!
What's going on is your computer's microphone has been listening all along. And it's not a thing of the distant future, nor necessarily even of tomorrow: Google has already developed the technology to listen in on ambient sounds around your house, then fire off relevant ads to your Web browser. It can even keep up with your TV while you're channel surfing.
"Google: Expect that secret volcanic base any day now."
And while they're only talking about using it in synch with broadcast TV content (advertising products that tie in to whatever is playing on your TV), this acoustic fingerprinting technology could be applied to any and all sounds coming from within the reception area, including the ones made by you.
"We heard loud screaming! Would you like this noise-canceling headset for only $19.95?"
But we're not going to have to speculate for long -- acoustic fingerprinting technology is actually going to be rolled out by AsSeenOnTV.com any day now. Their plan is to listen to the television infomercials that your cellphone picks up and then take you directly to a mobile website where you can purchase the product pretty much instantly. But hey, it's all about convenience and not at all about listening to whatever is going on in your house. Certainly no potential for abuse there.
Eavesdropping on Your Phone Calls
With every ad executive in the world seemingly on board the Invading Your Privacy Train, it's at least comforting to know that there are some aspects of your life that you can control without any commercial messages. Like, for instance, phone calls. Hell, think about the trouble the cops have to go through to listen in on a phone call. The thought of some advertiser trying to do it just to throw conversation-relevant ads at you is laughable. Right?
"Let me listen to this housewife's inane chatter in the name of capitalism!"
Well, tell that to Pudding Media, a marketing company that is doing that very thing.
Here's how it works. Much like Google scans your Gmail account to throw content-relevant ads at you, Pudding Media's Internet phone service agrees to provide its technology to you free of charge -- as long as you allow them to eavesdrop on your phone calls via voice-recognition software in order to show you ads that tie in to whatever you're talking to Mom about.
"Ha! That's weird. My browser is giving me ads for divorce lawyers again!"
Privacy is, naturally, a huge issue here -- big enough that even other players in the business express concern over the idea. But don't worry, Pudding Media's CEO Ariel Maislos has squashed any potential issues with privacy: He says that their target group is young people, and they don't care about privacy.
"We often watch teenagers undressing at night through their windows. They don't even notice."
Seriously, their justification for the whole business model is that since kids use Facebook and shit and basically live in the open anyway, they should have no problem with a marketing company listening to their private phone calls. But don't worry, Maislos promises they're not going to store any data, and we certainly can't imagine a former military intelligence officer turned marketing executive would ever deceive us.
Dwayne can be reached at email@example.com, or you can read more from him on his blog.
For more advertising creepiness, check out The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future and 10 Awesome Ads (For Traumatizing Children).
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