You Just Proved Advertising Works
Today we’d like to take you back to the world of the future. This time, we explore the nuanced world of analytics and data gathering, and imagine where it may be headed.
• • •
Meet Ibrahim. You may have met him once before when he was buying shoes. Ibrahim lives thirty years in the future, a time when “social media” has become integrated into virtually every aspect of our apparel, and technology has become a seamless part of every day life.
Ibrahim works in the heart of the city, and lives on its skin. His commute takes him half an hour, suburb to city-centre, and along the way are countless advertisements. Then, like now, the ads are seemingly ubiquitous, but something important has changed.
The commuter train pulls up – a white, maglev shuttle striped in red, its contours swept back in a new take on a Raymond Loewy classic, meant to convey speed and elegance. Its side is consumed by an enormous vehicle wrap, advertising some kind of new energy drink, guaranteed to keep you awake for 36 hours straight or your money back.
Ibrahim glances at it. Somewhere, in a central monitoring system known as AdWeb, data is collected:
- Aged 30 – 35
- Blue Shirt
- New running shoes
- 12 seconds spent engaging.
- Pulse did not fluctuate.
- Pupils did not dilate.
Ibrahim touches a button on his collar, setting himself to anonymous. AdWeb cuts off abruptly, losing track of its subject. Ibrahim knows how this works. He was sixteen when the government adopted the Anonymous Digital Citizen Act (ADCA), which mandated that digital advertising offer an opt-out feature when tracking civilian analytics. Most of the time he doesn’t bother opting out, but he still like seeing the reaction from AdWeb when he does.
The shuttle pulls up and Ibrahim boards. Shuttle rides haven’t changed much. Like the busses and streetcars of the past, there are a lot of ads overhead. Ibrahim’s alone on at the rear of the shuttle and all the ads are targeted to him. For fun Ibrahim taps his collar – setting his status to “private”. He watches as the ads go from custom to generic. With another tap, his customized ads are back again. Two young women move to the back and suddenly the ads shift. Now they’re showing cross-interest content, some obviously targeting the women, some still targeting him, some of them overlapping. A woman with her kid gets on and moves to the back, and the ads change again.
Ibrahim chuckles inwardly. Five years ago, most of the ads on the shuttle would have pegged him as the most valuable customer in any given crowd, and therefore catered towards him primarily. Now? He’s the middle of the road. Glancing around, he can see exactly who the main demographic is. The two young women in the fourth row, wearing branded jackets, talking excitedly about a new device they’ve bought. They’re part of the new generation; tech-savvy and loaded with disposable income. Across from them, the kid plays with the latest from Nintendo: A tradable card game that has holograms projected up from the illustrations, battling with the decks of others. Ibrahim’s not in either generation, and he doesn’t engage like he used to.
He leans back in his chair and remembers a time when he was very young, perhaps only eight or nine. He’s looking at a bench that says, “you just proved advertising works!” Even at that young age, he knew that kind of advertising was stupid and blunt, but the message had an air of truth. You see, it was never a question of did people see the ads. It was a question of whether people remembered them.
Now, AdWeb can tell. Ibrahim taps his collar again and pulls himself out of the mix. He pulls a piece of sheer, translucent plastic from his workbag, the sheet glimmering to life as it detects his fingers and then his eyes. He gazes at the piece of polymer and pulls up a copy of the novel 1984. Irony, and better than staring at ads, he thinks. In response to a press from his thumb, a logo flashes by, and then he’s back in the middle of the book, complete with moving images. He glances at the header of the page. Seeing an ad for a related book, he sighs. He brings up a preference on the sheet and the ad vanishes. He has to switch to anonymous on everything these days.
• • •
Although in-person ad-tracking may feel Orwellian in tone, it’s likely an eventuality of our public life and private life. The potential for understanding consumer habits and human attraction to product is impressive. We can all hope that a real version of the Anonymous Digital Citizen Act will come to pass when that happens, because like Ibrahim, we all value our privacy.