Advertising has always been a cat-and-mouse game between the companies trying to get shoppers to pick their products and consumers desperately trying to go about their lives and read, watch or listen to their preferred content without having to endure a sales pitch.
Humans, as we do, have generally adapted to stay one step ahead of the advertisers. Television commercials became the time to use the bathroom, to fix a snack or a drink, or, heaven forbid, talk to your family. As remote controls made channel-surfing easier, avoiding ads became as simple as pressing a button. DVRs and streaming all added to the ways in which we could essentially watch content for free, without having to watch the annoying spots that actually paid the bills.
But nothing has disrupted advertising experience quite like the explosion of smart phones/tablets. The typical modern television viewing experience for most people involves a device other than a television. This Second Screen Syndrome should be familiar to all of us now, whether it involves triaging work emails, looking up where we’ve seen that actor before, finishing that article you were reading on the train or creating a playlist for your workout — we all have a phone or similar device handy and active while we’re watching TV. Most of the time, this not only keeps us from watching the commercials but even the show we’re ostensibly tuning into in the first place.
Despite this behavior becoming both commonplace and common knowledge, despite all reason, advertisers continue to pour billions of dollars a year into television. Research firm Strategy Analytics predicted in January that 2015 advertising spending in the U.S. would total $186.6 billion, with television spending accounting for almost $79 billion of that, or more than 42 percent.
Countless hours of footage for sodas, burgers, cars, political candidates, erection pills, depression pills, blood pressure pills, dating sites and more erection pills are filmed, aired and largely ignored. Think about the legions of creative workers, commercial actors, voice-over actors, camera men, editors, set-builders, copywriters, jingle writers, lighting directors and ad salesmen all working to create a product that has been completely reduced to background noise in the modern world — an economy of futility, kept in place simply because that’s what they’ve always done.
This is hardly a phenomenon limited to television. Digital ad spending may be growing, but user experience designers will tell you that decades of Internet use has trained us to not really make eye contact with right rails of websites or banner advertising, which is why those ads are so often chock full of pretty people, dancing GIFS, freaky animals or plastic surgery mistakes — anything to draw the viewer’s eye to a place we’ve been trained to ignore. And that’s assuming the viewer hasn’t installed ad blocking software.
Websites turned to video content with pre-roll ads to try and force users to engage, but users remained elusive, often avoiding video content, or navigating to a different tab until the “Skip Ad” button appears. Now with readership moving mobile, where ad space is severely limited, websites are trying “native advertising” to attempt to disguise their ads as stories, a kind of evolution of good old fashioned product placement (itself a phenomenon that was devised to force commercials on those who’d learned to avoid them).
If you read the endless numbers of industry articles titled “The Future of Advertising”, you’ll be bombarded with a dystopian view (or Utopian, if you are an advertiser) of advertising straight out of Phillip K. Dick, a world in which everything you see is commoditized, scannable and, most importantly, purchasable. Life itself will become a continuous advertisement for the products we all believe will complete our existence.
Indeed, this is already happening. Pinterest and Instagram are adding purchase functionality to their streams, meaning when you are flipping through photos of brunches, or sunsets, or cute shoes, or swimsuits or puppies, you can instantly find out how to purchase, travel to or eat what is being shown (hopefully not the puppy).
As the industry adapts, what is now being referred to as Second Screen Advertising will begin to take over. According to a recent study, 87 percent of viewers use a second viewing device while watching. Additional research also shows that this habit completely destroys the ability for television commercials to establish brand recognition, even subliminally. If consumers aren’t watching the commercials on their televisions because they are reading their phones, the advertisers naturally figure they should send ads directly to the phones. The cat-and-mouse game for your attention keeps going.
You may have seen ads recently asking you to use Shazaam (the popular music recognition app, which has for years said that television advertising was its main revenue model) to “find out more” about a range of things spanning from chewing gum to enlisting in the Navy. By focusing on your ISP or simply using your phone’s microphone to determine what you are watching on your primary screen, advertisers can send ads matched to the content you are watching directly to your phone, interrupting whatever distraction you were using to avoid commercials in the first place.
Advertisers, of course, do not see this as an intrusion, but rather as “a new storytelling opportunity that allows brands to add extra value for people who just watched their TV spot.” They view not as an Orwellian development, but just a high tech gloss on the J. Peterman catalog.
Or consider the commercial applications of the technology HBO uses for its Game of Thrones Interactive on the Go App, which allows viewers to synch their second screen to their first, giving annotated bits of information about the complex plot and details of the fantasy world. That same technology can and will be applied to any show: Imagine being able to find out the price tags on the outfits on Project Runway, or the Kardashians or Empire. Why stop there? Why not incorporate a buy button so you can have Kim’s shoes by tomorrow courtesy of Zappos?
For that matter, why should the ad push stop with screens? See a sharp pair of sunglasses or a cute handbag walking down the street, and before long you’ll just snap a picture (of another living, breathing human being who is probably not thinking of themselves as a mannequin) and find out how you can get one of your own.
But this dream/nightmare of consumerism is still dependent on customer buy-in, and ignores the entire history of human interaction with advertising. We avoid commercials and consistently find ways around them. We want our cake without the sponsors’ broccoli. Surely software will be developed to block second screen ads in the same way ad blockers exist for web pages. Surely, there will be reactions more severe than “No Logo” to a world where we are all walking models in someone else’s lifestyle catalog. Surely, the cat and mouse game will continue.
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