Science Fiction Today: Advertising

Advertising is an area that as technology changes needs to get overhauled. People used to have to buy a newspaper or listen to the radio to get their news, but now you can search online. Advertising is the information on the peripheral of the thing we actually want to see. As we have become more sophisticated in how we engage with the world and our chosen entertainment advertising has had to change how it catches our eye because many things depend on the advertising.

It is not always something that is present in science fiction, but advertising is such a pervasive part of how we experience much of our entertainment it makes sense that if the technology is growing that the advertising would grow with it. From science fiction there are a few different ways that advertising is present in the world. From an always on mentality, to a customized experience depending on the person, as well as there being an entirely different model for commerce and therefore no advertising at all.

Always Advertising

In many dystopia science fiction there seems to be people stacked on top of each other and the world is usually covered with apartments. Some people have found larger places, but it is still the fact that everyone is crowded together and we have had to think of different ways to build to accommodate the population. It seems to be amazing that even in the grungiest of heap there are monitors everywhere trying to sell some product or another. Video screens all over the place that not only show visuals, but also make you listen to the ad as well.

With this type of advertising there is no way to turn it off. It is just always there. Some people already look at advertising as a type of White Noise, but if it is always on then it would really become part of the noise of the city. In many of these instances you even have these type of advertisements on screens at home, the security system, fancy electronics, etc all with screens where someone could put advertising space. If the space is there it is being used.

Customized Advertising

This version of advertising I most remember from Minority Report. Part of the dependency of this type of advertising is the ability to monitor who is standing in front of a screen at one time and potentially to follow that person if it is a screen in a corridor. The idea of the technology is incredibly fascinating and incredibly scary. To be able to tell who it is might be some sort of facial recognition, but what would be more likely is a technology that says who you are that con communicate with the screen.

Think about how Amazon works and the recommendations that they make to their users depending on their buying habits. Now imagine walking through a mall and having every screen give you specialized advertising based on your other shopping habits. It knows you are male or female, knows that you like science fiction / fantasy, knows you like classical music and can tailor advertising specifically for you and even call you by name. Trying to personal the experience of telling you what to buy to make you more likely to want to buy it.

The scariest part of all this is how would they track you and know you are standing near a specific screen. The most likely thing is an RFID chip. In Minority Report it is a capsule that is inserted under the skin that is used to track all the information about a person. That ability to track someone would be a boon to advertising, but who really wants anyone to have that amount information. (As can be seen with the uproar over the capturing of metadata from cell phone companies.)

Lack of Advertising

Finally, there seems to also be a path where advertising either does not grow any further than it currently is or even disappears due to a change in how we do commerce. Sometimes we think that things will just continue down this path and nothing will really change. At the same time what if it did, what if someone came up with a new method of commerce and there was not a need for advertising anymore. The Host actually shows a really interesting look at something like that.

In The Host the invading aliens do not believe in money they just take care of each other. They do not need money because people only take what they need and do not use or take more than that. There is a scene where they go into a grocery store and everything is labelled in the exact same way. It just says milk, eggs, cereal, etc. It is about the nutrients you can get not about indulging in a specific desire. A world without advertising is not easy to imagine, but it could be possible although very, very difficult.

It is more likely that one of the other options is our future. Already sports have been consumed by sponsors who put up their signs on everything in a stadium. Companies are finding more subtle ways of sneaking advertising in where you don’t really notice it, but simply invades your consciousness. Now what would be really horrifying is if they could ever invade your dreams. Imagine if you had to plug into something at night where they downloaded advertising into your brain, but you did not have to be subject to ads at any other time. It would be an interesting concept, but I think leaving my dreams my own would be good.

2 responses to “Science Fiction Today: Advertising

  1. Excellent observations. I think our culture is getting to the point where we’ve given up all semblance of privacy and have traded that in for ‘perks’. They’re not going to need RFID when most people have smartphones that have GPS tracking ability but also have apps that encourage people to willingly ‘check in’ their location so someone can track where someone has been, when they were there. Retailer reward programs encourage people to allow someone to track their buying habits. All this data can be extremely useful for marketing purposes — comapnies used to have to pay out big money to send out specially trained employees just for data collection — and we’re willingly signing it over for minor discounts and freebies, both online and in the ‘real’ world.

    Google Glass is the thing that startles me the most about this trend — it’s a wearable and completely convient computer with recording devices that can beam information into a HUD. The last barrier to being constantly connected to a network (well, with the exception of not quite having wi-fi everywhere just yet), having to carry around a screen in your hand and glance at it, is being obliterated. It’s sort of like when people started using hands free headsets with their phones and it seemed weird to see people ‘talking’ to themselves . . . in a couple years there’s going to be people with eyeglass frames on their faces just standing and staring off blankly while they read incoming information.

    And we’ve all just become subjects in a giant reality TV show where we can’t even be sure we’re being recorded — not by law-enforcement, or by commerical entites, but by each other as ‘civilians’ — but we can get uploaded to YouTube and shared between the recorder’s network of friends and followers. The creators of this stuff can put all the safeguards in they want, the politicans can pass all the laws governing how it gets used that they want, but as William Gibson put it, the Street finds its own uses for things. We don’t need cyberpunk ‘wetware’ impants anymore, we just cart the stuff around with us and don’t have to visit a surgeon to upgrade, just a kiosk in the mall.

    There’s a novel called Jennifer Government, by Max Barry, that I read several years ago, well before the whole ‘rewards’ program form of marketing got into full swing. It poses a near future where there’s two major trade ‘alliances’ that resulted from competitors within a certain industry aligning themselves — Coke joins one side and Pepsi joins the other, Nike on one team and Reebok on the other, and they effectively manipulate people’s buying habits by allowing you to combine ‘rewards’ — if you drink Pepsi you get points toward a discount on Nike shoes because they’re partners in the alliance. Companies end up being forced to join because they can’t afford to be left out of the loop of demographic data collection.

    It sounds more and more plausible as I see more and more people carrying around huge keyrings rull of plastic fobs with barcodes on them: wouldn’t it be easier to just tie those things together and have one fob to collect rewards instead of five, and those five companies can just share data they collect. Every time a clerk asks me if I want to sign up for one of these reward programs now, I remember that book.


  2. “The Notebook of My Favorite Skin Trees” had a really interesting take on future advertising: advertise on the leaves on a miniature tree that grows on your shoulder:


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