Alex Poulos

‘Mad Men’ of the future

The world of advertising — consumer, beware

(Dan Hubig for The Boston Globe)
By Alex Poulos
May 31, 2011

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‘WHAT IS the Internet?’’

Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel struggle to answer that in a 1994 segment of The Today Show.’’ Their ignorance seems laughable now, which is why a video of their discussion went viral.

But, with technology transforming the world, we’ll all seem ridiculous 20 years from now when WikiLeaks posts our e-mails of today. What we think is hot will seem absurd to the next generation, including the term “hot.’’

I’ve been thinking about four trends in my industry of advertising and wonder who will laugh last. I’m afraid it won’t be the consumer.

■INTRUSIVE . When you’re at a store, you see a video screen playing TV spots or info-promos. In the future, cabs will not only have little TVs in the back for passengers, but casino gaming screens (with taxes added to the credit card, of course). The cabs will have scrolling messaging across the back window or bumper for the motorists behind, stuck in traffic. Safety laws might require that messaging only appears when the car is at a complete stop, so as not to distract drivers.

When you open a bottle of medicine, an audio message will give you instructions and warnings about its use, as well as a plug for the pharma company. The justification: an “audio label’’ is easier for elderly patients than reading tiny print on a print label. So, if an audio microchip is “consumer-friendly,’’ expect to hear them too when you open beverage bottles and toothpaste. Shampoo bottles will give you an upbeat, musical pitch, reminding you to shampoo twice.

■INVASIVE . Hidden cameras already record people in a public setting or store. How long will it be before near-bankrupt municipalities and stores agree to “strategic alliances’’ with consumer research companies to allow constant monitoring (surveillance) and evaluation of individuals everywhere they go. . . examining their shopping, dining, and recreational patterns. They’ll call it “real-time data mining’’ or something innocuous like that.

Advertising will not just be interactive — it will anticipate, guide, encourage, and train you to be more effectively interactive. For example, if you decide to buy something online that is not the best bargain, you’ll be contacted and urged to change your mind by avatar czars (ad entities that track and protect you from impulses that you’ve acknowledged in ad-programs and/or because you’ve been designated an at-risk buyer by creditors and bankruptcy courts).

■INTEGRATED . Advertising, marketing, and PR will become indistinguishable. Yet words used now to hasten that day — “integrated,’’ “synergy,’’ and “holistic’’ — will seem silly in the future, much like we chuckle when we see old movies proudly announced as “Radio Pictures.’’ Future geeks (a word that will later just mean “folks’’) will find it amusing. How could people separate advertising, marketing, and PR? It’s as preposterous as having separate technologies — telephone, TV, radio, computer, fax, movies, video games. . . instead of just your iThing (which will be called iT).

In the future, networks will allow older movies and TV shows to have “retro sponsor placement’’ — contemporary logos will be edited into old scenes. We might see “Hanes’’ on gladiator garb in Spartacus.’’ And it will be common to see mash-ups of new and old TV spots.

■INTERACTIVE . In-person shopping will be a performance art. “Real life’’ will mean what you do online — work, socialize, train your virtual pet, and “grow’’ your avatar’s personality so it’s “more you’’ in networking with other avatars while you sleep. . .

Soon 3-D ads will be common. But later, we’ll have 4-D advertising — smell will be produced, to stimulate appetite.

Then there’ll be 5-D ads — physical touch will be integrated, to soothe and excite. AOL News reported that two Japanese scientists have developed “the cyberhug,’’ a network of “connected straps resembling a harness. . . to add a human-like level of sensation to online conversations. Their prototype’s called ‘iFeel IM!,’ meaning ‘I feel therefore I am.’ ’’

Ultimately, there will be 6-D — changing your perception of time so when you see a holographic ad, you’ll have déjà vu.

Twenty years from now, I hope I’m laughing at this column.

Alex Poulos is president of LaunchPad Media.