Inside Story: The future is looking a bit scary

Ten years from now, marketing agencies could well be using the following methods to push their message into already overcrowded human brains, says Richard Benson. Some could be winners while others make Tesco's customer database look positively benign
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The Independent Online

In the old days, when it was just between us and the newspapers, radio and telly, there was a delightful simplicity to our relationship with mass media. When we wanted informing or entertaining, we bought some or else went to where the relevant receiver was, and looked at it. When we had had enough, we did something else; we trusted it; we didn't mind putting up with the adverts, and accepted we could only find out stuff a) when it was available and b) when we had time to, ahem, interact with it.

This is in marked contrast to a modern age of 24-hour TV newsfeeds in train carriages, P2P networks, viral marketing, podcasts, videophones, text alerts, websites and editorial content sponsored so heavily that you don't quite know where the lifestyle sell ends and the information begins. Mass media now come not only to you but at you, and technology is making the stream thicker and faster by the day. It seems likely that in the not too distant future, we will have a bit of "media" pushed at us with every waking experience; a frightening thought, but not entirely alien if you think of, say, Kingston-Upon-Hull's council recently installing a huge TV screen to show terrestrial BBC all day about the city's main shopping street, or those lovely phone systems that play you ads while you're on hold.

It is mainly advances in communications technology that allow this, of course, but the driving forces are a good deal greater than even the massed ranks of the world's tech corporations. Business as a whole - or at least that section of it which is consumer facing - is increasingly using elements of entertainment to add value to its products, hoping that this will forge an emotional bond between brand and customer. Politicians now see interacting with us through our "culture" as a way to change behaviour - hence all those government-funded magazines in hospital waiting areas, and Tony Blair's "respect" campaign. And marketeers, as we all know, need to get around systems such as TiVo that allow audiences to screen out ads.

It is perhaps in anticipation of this that those marketeers are thinking so much about "buzz" marketing; the science of word of mouth could be the only source of a resolution to the paradox of having more media available while finding it harder to reach your target audience. When I was working on a new report on Britain's expanding creative economy for The Fish Can Sing, I found myself wondering if this resolution might somehow involve the huge wave of creative energy that new technology is releasing among the British population at large.

As part of the report, we examined trends in media technology and usage, and put together a speculative list of how it might be affecting our lives in 2015. I have to warn you that it is not all pleasant; some of it may have you longing for the good old simple days.

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With many companies trying to engage customers using the story behind their products, the label is augmented by an embedded chip which, when scanned by sensors in a video device, triggers a two-minute film about the item. This will initially be popular with brands where provenance is important, such as food and drink; in the picture we see one being used at a farmers' market of the future.


Smart brands will find use media to extend their brand further into our lives; think of club compilation CDs as a start point. Here we see Kellogg's exploiting its association with the morning using wake devices - essentially alarm clocks using an internet connection so that the user can choose from a huge range of net-based radio stations, or dedicated wake-up services launched as the wake device became popular.


It is perhaps surprising that a national brand has yet to exploit the internet café boom, and the increasing number of freelance and mobile workers still have to limp into a Starbucks if they want to sit down and check their email. At some point, we think, a mobile network will provide pods, rentable by the hour, where people can catch up on correspondence and perhaps have one-to-one meetings. Kind of like 21st-century phone boxes.


The big prizes in media will be reserved for those companies able to use information about our individual media and consumer choices in order to direct us towards other content we would like. Google and Amazon are already well down the path, but they use the information only to hook you into their offer. We see Apple producing a device which is able to record all the choices we make in the home, and to then cross-reference them to direct us to various media channels. For example, if we order books about British cookery from Amazon, iSphere will direct us to those quaint Rick Stein repeats on UK Gold.


As mass media become less able to attract mass audiences, so public spaces where people gather become prime advertising locations. Look out for water coolers like this one, able to screen ads and trailers for TV stations.


A key idea in the new media world will be the integration of gathering information and action; if iTunes can allow you to read about new music while simultaneously playing and downloading, why should the same principle not be applied to other activities? Here we see a web-linked kitchen which allows the cook to dispense with cookery books and get advice about recipes at the stove top. The toaster has a weblink which allows you to get images on your toast, and the chicken is about to be humanely killed using an electrocution device which allows you to ensure your meat is fresh. We were sort of joking here.


Now that almost every family has at least one blogger or website publisher, the public demand for the right to advertisements for their work on the front of private houses has become irresistible, with local planning authorities permitting one sign per property. These have become like the equivalent of the signs which craftspeople hung outside their homes in pre-industrial times.


All this gets a bit scary when you think of government organisations getting involved on the pretext that they want to help us help ourselves. Here we see a pilot scheme designed to curb binge drinking; a beer glass with sensors which detect the levels of inebriation, and issue advice through a screen in the base. Here we see an unlucky over-indulger being advised to order no more beer, and to make his way home. You may see in the background a poster advertising the pub quiz night sponsored by Google.You may be heartened to know that media overload has already prompted a real-life "culture-jamming" organisation to call for a new campaign for a limiting of corporate messaging into private space.

Richard Benson is a former editor of 'The Face'. Creative World is produced by The Fish Can Sing, a creative agency specialising in brand planning, viral, event, ambient and PR driven campaigns. It is available from or in hard copy for £20 from TFCS, Corbett Place, London EC1 6NN