“Ambient marketing”

Awhile ago I overheard some students on the bus talking about how marketing is infiltrating our daily lives, and ads are popping up in places they never used to be. One of them began sharing some ideas he had for taking this type of marketing “to the next level”: putting Braille advertisements on handrails, for example, and instead of having a crosswalk that beeps when the walk sign is illuminated, it would instead be an automated voice saying “geico, geico, geico”. I think he was joking, but have you seen how college football now has ads on the nets that are stretched between the uprights for field goals?

I think it’s only a matter of time until NFL players’ uniforms look more like Nascar drivers’: covered in logos. Another example is the appearance of ads in the bottom of the bins you put your shoes in when going through airport security. You’d think people wouldn’t want their brand associated with that harrowing experience, but Amtrak marketing itself that way is pretty clever. The first ad of that type I saw was for Zappos, and while I get the connection, I was more freaked out to see an ad there than I was struck by the need to go purchase new shoes online.

The cover story in the Winter 2010 issue of Marketing Health Services is on ambient media, and I couldn’t resist sharing some of their (admittedly creative, though a bit unsettling) suggestions for marketing health-related products and services out in the world:

Messages on the floors of the pain reliever aisles in drug stores for joint replacement services. “Why settle for temporary pain relief?”

Sponsored goal-post pads for a sports medicine practice. “When you break more than a tackle.”

Multiple-choice movie trivia quiz to match doctor characters with their film titles to promote a physician network. “Choosing a doctor has never been easier.”

Grocery cart advertising to promote OB and well baby services. “Shop around before you decide where to have your baby.”

Brochure racks next to community ashtrays outside prominent public buildings for smoking cessation assistance. “Wouldn’t you rather be inside in the fresh air?”

Posters at mass transit shelters to promote leading-edge oncology services. “Cancer stops here.”

I have such mixed feelings about marketing in general. Some of it is so creative, and I can’t help appreciating something that is original and well-executed. This is probably why there’s such an obsession with Superbowl ads, which, let’s face it, have not lived up to their reputation for awhile now. But that’s TV advertising. There’s another degree of creativity involved in ambient marketing because it makes a connection between space and what people supposedly do/think/feel in that space. A 2007 article in B&T Weekly puts it succinctly: “Ambient marketing has to constantly re-evaluate and surprise so the medium doesn’t become too mainstream and lose its appeal”.

But, to put that another way:

Advertising works somewhat like bacteria: After its hosts (consumers) are exposed, they become immune, so new strains of ads must develop and grow. These new strains are quickly copied, adding clutter, requiring new strains to emerge. Over time, advertising clutter leads to diminishing returns for individual campaigns. The more advertising grows, the more it must grow. The cycle accelerates and what was formerly considered unethical, offensive, or gauche is gradually mainstreamed out of necessity.

-“Ad creep – ambient advertising” Stay Free! Magazine

As much as I appreciate creativity, it bothers and frustrates me to be bombarded with ads everywhere I go. Ambient media is the epitome of corporations getting up in my face to the extent that it makes me mad. Some might even call it aesthetic pollution. Just writing this post brought me to some interesting articles on ad fatigue and media saturation.

According to Advertising Age and the Encyclopedia of American Industries (2006 ed.) the outdoor marketing industry is growing faster than other mass media, and is likely to outperform “traditional media counterparts such as radio, TV and print” even in times of decelerated growth (aka all of 2009). Makes me think the future could resemble the cities portrayed in sci-fi novels, where virtual ads tailored to your “demographic” pop-up and talk to you as you try to navigate through virtual or realspace.

Brasyl illustration by Stephan Martiniere
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