Advertising, Futurama, and You

William Boddy’s essay “ ‘Is it TV Yet? The Dislocated Screens of Television in a Mobile Digital Culture” dealt extensively with the question of advertisements and advertising technology. Some of the work’s descriptions of modern advertisement technologies were downright disturbing.

I found the Holosonics billboard ad mentioned in “’Is It TV Yet?’” particularly striking. The essay describes how the Holosonics billboard ad beamed sounds into passersby, creating the illusion of a whisper in one’s ear that delivered the advertisement. The effect was striking, with those targeted quite unable to avoid engaging with the advertisement.
Upon reading about this rather bizarre form of advertisement, I was immediately reminded of the Futurama episode “A Fishful of Dollars”, in which the main character Fry experiences targeted advertisements inserted into his dreams. Futurama likely intends for the sequence to be light-hearted and comedic in nature, but the story of the Holosonics billboard makes me wonder whether Futurama’s vision of the future may be very far off.
While the Holosonics billboard appears rather harmless in nature, its ability to demand individuals’ attention concerns me. Attention-grabbing audio or visual advertisements populate our modern society, but can typically be tuned out or ignored entirely if an individual so wishes. As discussed in “’Is It TV Yet?’” advertising techniques have steadily been eating away at what little barrier of privacy remained between the individual and corporations. The Holosonics board represents only one of a myriad different new ways in which advertisers can exert greater influence than ever before over the lives of consumers. I may simply be overreacting, but I don’t much care for the idea of a company being able to reach out and advertise to me even if I should prefer to avoid them. Who’s to say that the technology behind Holosonics may not one day allow for companies to beam audio ads directly into homes, for example?

The modern suite of digital entertainment devices also offers an unprecedented level of advertising information to companies. Microsoft’s Kinect device, bundled with every copy of the new Xbox One video gaming console, is a motion-sensitive camera that tracks the position of users in a room and allows motion-based interactions with games. The Kinect isn’t just a fancy game controller, though. It’s a camera, and as discussed in “’Is It TV Yet?’”, there’s now a great deal of information to be mined from such devices by advertisers. Microsoft has displayed a keen awareness of the advertising potential offered by the ability to literally see into somebody’s living room, and while they’ve assured users that Microsoft has no intention of violating personal privacy, a healthy degree of skepticism seems warranted.

As I write this, news has just broken that Facebook has purchased the much-anticipated Oculus Rift “virtual reality” gaming headset. Crowdfunded by nearly 10,000 individuals to the tune of $2.4 million via Kickstarter, the Rift is a headset with a built-in screen worn over the face, creating the illusion of total immersion in a gaming environment. Facebook did Kickstarter one better, offering the creators of the Rift $2 billion for their invention. If virtual reality is indeed the future of digital entertainment, as Zuckerberg believes, Facebook now has their foot in the door of a potential advertising goldmine. If properly exploited, virtual reality technology could offer even greater intimate access to users than devices such as the Kinect or the Holosonic billboard.

While advertising is not inherently a wrong or evil concept, after reading “’Is It TV Yet?’” I can’t help but be reminded of the dystopian, corporation-controlled world of the cyberpunk genre. Is that potential future closer than we may realize?

 

Citations

Boddy, William. “Is it tv yet? The dislocated screens of television in a mobile digital culture.” Television as Digital Media, edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange (2011): 76-101.
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