Part of the Problem
I have been traveling for work a lot lately and I feel as though, passing through airports, train stations, and a wide variety of other public spaces, there are fewer and fewer unbranded places left. We are quickly reaching a state of hyper commercialism where every bat of the eye is a transaction at once physical, cultural, and economic. In a world filled with ads we are unwitting (and often unwilling) consumers, traded and bargained for by ad execs and sales reps betting we’ll pass through their branded space.
Already fed up with TVs blaring from every lobby corner and storefront window, computer screens embedded in walls and kiosks, and old fashioned billboards and banners everywhere, I was dismayed recently when I turned the corner in my local airport and saw enormous ads being projected onto a formerly clean white wall. However, once I walked by I realized that these projections were much worse than just big ads.
The ads were for Travelers Insurance, and consisted of huge red umbrellas, made up of hundreds of little red umbrellas (the red umbrella is the company logo). As groups of people walked by the images the umbrella’s scattered to the edges of the projection around people’s silhouettes, ricocheting off the edges and bouncing back into shape with a fluid elasticity. Once they realized what was going on, many people stopped and waved their arms scattering the little red umbrellas and watching them regroup. Others watched as kids jumped up and down reaching for the little logos zipping across the wall.
The ads worked. People stopped and looked. And not only did they stop, they participated. In a time when everything is about interactivity, when people are as much creators of media as they are consumers of it, it is only natural that ads become another form of participation. It is the marketization of movement, the branding of being.
The company behind the ads is Monster Media and they specialize in these sorts of interactive ads, some in windows, some on screens, and some projected on floors or walls. On their home page you can see some video of other ad installations they have created – including the Travelers umbrellas. Their site touts that, “Overall demos had a 41.3% unaided recall rate” and that “50% surveyed said they remembered seeing the advertisement on a previous visit.” It’s true, the ads are surprising and novel, but at what cost?
What happens when we literally cannot block out advertising – when it forces itself upon us? These interactive ads — projected in such a way that makes us have to walk through them — draft us into participating, forcing us to interact with their product, branding not just our space, and our bodies, but even the motion of our bodies moving through the space. Traditionally, ads have been inserted into the products and places we’re engage in. For the most part, we could – without too much trouble – choose to ignore or avoid those ads. These new interactive ads shift from being passive messages to active actors, inserting themselves into your mental space.
Of course, the president of Monster Media sees it a bit differently. He sees his product as providing a service to consumers, letting them interact with a product, test it out, get a feel for the brand in a more immersive way. He says “Consumers now have the ability to engage with advertising like never before, literally bringing static ads to life and creating memorable and personal experiences.” This is ad heaven. The ability to give each consumer an unique and personalized experience.
What he doesn’t say is that as his enormous projected ads fill more of our public spaces, these “memorable and personal experiences” are created by interrupting other personal experiences. It is not, as Monster Media claims, that their ads give consumers the ability to engage, it is that they take away one’s choice not to.
Now, when I walk through that corridor in the airport I drift as far as possible to one side. Like a spy slipping past security cameras, I try to sneak by the projectors without disturbing the little red umbrellas. It is my way of opting out, of reclaiming my choice not to engage. But in the end, by focusing so intently on trying not to be part of the ad, I am in effect focusing on the ad itself and thus still a participant, still branded, still part of the problem.