Isaac Asimov’s predictions

The March 29 issue of Advertising Age has a feature on the history of advertising.  One article is a reprint of a 1977 essay by Isaac Asimov, forecasting “what the advertising future would be like in 2000”.  It’s impressive how accurate a lot of his ideas are.  It’s also amusing how many sci-fi writings from the 60s and 70s mention microfilm as the media of the future.  I remember reading old articles in library school and laughing at that.  Asimov’s predictions focus on the personalization of media consumption and advertising, which has obviously become reality. The odd thing is that he describes it as if consumers would voluntarily subscribe to certain types of ads, instead of ads being targeted at consumers based on company-created consumer profiles. Excerpt:

Ad Specialties Inc. is, for instance, widely recognized among the advertising community representatives as being the wave of the future. It produces coded ads much as a library produces a coded catalog.

Its philosophy is that people who view ads as intrusions on their newspaper or on their TV programs do so because most of the time they have no interest in the product being advertised. If they were looking upon, or reading, an ad dealing with something that they very much want at that time, it would be the news or the program that would be viewed as the intrusion.

It is now possible, therefore, for subscribers to Ad Specialties Inc. to inspect an elaborate catalog of product listings (“from plasma lights to plastic leads,” one of its own ads says) and then code their TV sets for the reception of ads dealing with some particular type of product. They can inspect the various ads for that product, facsimile those they choose to, and be prepared for further inquiries.

Then the grandiose but equally prescient suggestion that advertising and marketing tactics can play a part in political and social change:

We must sell the world, through the persuasion techniques developed by advertology, on the necessity of reducing population, of conserving and recycling the Earth’s resources, of exploiting space to supplement Earth’s energy supply. Most of all, humanity must be sold on the necessity of employing its aggressive impulses not against itself, but in battling ignorance and folly and in extending the frontiers of knowledge and wisdom.

And in that manner, we may all be saved.

He also talks about holograms. ❤ Asimov ❤

(image from


“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

Things you can learn in business databases

I was looking at an industry profile of the US hot beverage industry, and noticed that one of the leading companies, Altria Group Inc. (MO), reportedly was a parent company of both Philip Morris USA (formerly with ticker PM USA, now not so sure) and Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT). This created a shocking mental image of money paid for Lunchables going into the same proverbial pockets as money paid for Marlboros. But when I looked up Philip Morris and Kraft Foods in another database, Altria Group was only listed as the parent company for the former…sort of. There’s Philip Morris International, Inc. (PM) which is listed as “public–parent” in Lexis-Nexis. Then there’s Philip Morris USA Inc. which doesn’t have a ticker, and is listed as a subsidiary of Altria Group. My curiosity was officially piqued.

If I regularly read the Financial Times or Forbes I would probably have known about this, but as a regular ol’ consumer, it is news to me. In 2008 Altria separated Philip Morris International from Phillip Morris USA. Why? According to a January 30, 2008 article from Forbes:

“the separation of Philip Morris International would yield higher shareholder value because it allows Altria to separate its faster-growing international arm, Philip Morris International, from its smaller American business, and the legal and public image problems it faces in the United States.[…] The spin-off will allow Philip Morris International to avoid pending legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to restrict tobacco advertising, regulate warning labels and remove hazardous ingredients.”

Nice. Real nice. It’s weird though, because I can’t imagine the regulation of warning labels in the US could surpass the warnings they already have in Europe. (wow thanks Wikipedia for that compendium of warning labels in numerous languages!) The article continues:

“The spin-off will leave Altria with Philip Morris USA, its domestic cigarette business, and a 28.6% stake in London-based beer company SABMiller, which makes Miller Genuine Draft, Pilsner Urquell and Snow.”

These corporate interminglings never cease to amaze me. But what about Kraft? Apparently, on March 30, 2007 Altria “divested” Kraft Foods. There’s even an NPR interview about it, though the title is a bit misleading. I wouldn’t say the CEO really explains the spin-off so much as she discusses hot dogs and how much people love mac ‘n’ cheese. Despite that, this seems like a pretty good moment of journalistic inquiry:

INSKEEP: The basics first, why split off from what was once known as Philip Morris?

Ms. ROSENFELD: Well, it’s a terrific opportunity for us to be able to make better use of some of our financial capabilities, as well as to pursue some new growth opportunities for the company.

INSKEEP: May I try to put that in layman’s terms. When you say make better use of your financial capabilities, do you mean make sure that Kraft’s money is not tied up in tobacco lawsuits?

Ms. ROSENFELD: No, I wouldn’t – certainly wouldn’t express it that way.

Of course not!

So, lessons learned in this little research adventure:
1. Don’t assume industry profiles have accurate information. The one I was reading was from a highly respected source, published in October 2008…many months after these spin-offs/divestments etc. took place, but it indicated nothing about all the aforementioned shapeshifting.

2. Don’t assume the profits from your Toblerone or candy pagers aren’t going to one of the worlds largest tobacco companies. (they might not be, anymore…for now, in this case only. maybe. hrm.) Back in the days when I was vigilant about finding this stuff out, I used the website Responsible Shopper (now “Green America”) a lot. I haven’t used it for years but from what I can tell it’s still got good info.

What a weird world we live in.

Snapshot from the “products” section of Business & Company Resource Center’s info on Altria Group: