"I sometimes wonder whether people making ads even want to be making ads at all."
What if all advertising was good? What if brands strived to be better, to be helpful, to enrich our lives? Amy Kean explores a premonition of one of advertising's possible futures.
I used to be a futurologist. After a few years I stopped and did something else.
I’d like to say because of a premonition, but truth is I fancied a change. However, much like psoriasis, futurology stays with you forever. It’s an itch always wanting to be scratched. I am tortured by the future. My days are drenched in unexpected dystopian visions, my house filled with crystal balls. All present thoughts are plagued with prophetical preoccupation. Cross my palm with silver and I will accurately predict the day of your death.
Much like psoriasis, futurology stays with you forever.
You won’t be surprised, then, that recently I’ve been thinking about the future of advertising. Really thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it because advertising is stuck in such a rut it makes me sad. Every medium is filled with ads interrupting and floating and wanting us to prove we’re not robots. We’re drowning in neglected data. As the number of specialisms in advertising increases, so does the diffusion of responsibility. No one wants to be the one to make it better. We’re losing our punch. Our weirdness. I sometimes wonder whether some people making ads these days even want to be making ads at all.
What if it was the law? If brands were legally required to add value every time they say something to the public?
Ten years ago I went to Madrid. I’m not bragging: it’s relevant to the story. I wanted to visit a museum but kept getting lost, so went to the tourist information point in the centre of town. They whipped out a paper map, laden with McDonald’s logos, representing all the McDonald’s around the city. I was given directions to the museum based on the position of McDonald’s logos, and when I finally arrived at the museum (which was next to a McDonald’s) those golden arches were such a beacon of relief I vowed to only ever eat Big Macs instead of Whoppers, forever.
Six years ago IBM ran a campaign called Useful Cities that turned out-of-home executions into added value: shelters from the rain, benches next to bus stops, ramps next to stairs, all branded with the IBM logo and message. It was lovely! Noticeable! Useful! It must have taken a lot of planning, and got the planners excited. People would have taken photos, wouldn’t they? Real people.
Above: IBM's Useful Cities executions.
Over the last 12 months we’ve seen a rise in art-based advertising. (Artvertising? Is that a thing? Have I coined a term? Named a trend?!) Graffiti - an art form that’s been around for millennia - is being adopted by the coolest brands (Nike, adidas, Burberry, Mac) to adorn the walls of cities with bright, bold branded images.
Instead of exploiting our insecurities, or telling us our kids won’t have any friends unless they eat fish fingers, what if brands use neuroscience to find out what combinations of colours and words would make us happy?
Proper painted, lush works of art, and they’re not allowed to be too addy. You know what? It makes the walls look better. It adds to the environment. It’s advertising, fine, but it fits the space real nice. People walk past and they take photographs of the walls. People talking photos of ads for a reason other than ripping it to shreds in on Twitter. I think that might be… good?
But what if it was all good? I mean, what if everything was good? In the future of advertising… what if everything had to be good? What if it was the law? If brands were legally required to add value every time they say something to the public? To make a space look prettier, or give back to a community, or donate to charity, or teach its customers something.
Those ASA demands of being decent, legal, honest and truthful aren’t enough anymore. We need more.
And it doesn’t just have to be big walls or useful bus shelters. What if a mobile ad - instead of getting in the way of the content you’re trying to read - told you a new fact, or gave you a message of support? Instead of exploiting our insecurities, or telling us our kids won’t have any friends unless they eat fish fingers, what if brands use neuroscience to find out what combinations of colours and words would make us happy?
For Easter (my favourite time of year, FYI) Cadbury are promoting not just eggs, but a UK treasure hunt in partnership with The National Trust, and talking about it on TV. It’s good! And while we’re at it, what if it was illegal for advertisers to support hate-filled and false editorial? What if there was a new clearing organisation – like Clearcast, but preachier – that judged every new ad based on how much it adds? Wait, what if we called it add-vertising? (I just can’t help myself, can I.)
I’m asking these questions because if we started cracking down on quality and added value, the future of advertising might feel more appealing. How would the future look if it was a legal requirement for brands to be good? I’ll make some guesses. The demand for real creativity would increase. Collaborations and partnerships would be more of a priority. I think we’d all become more driven by serving people rather than ourselves. The industry would get better PR and young’uns would be more excited about joining us.
Above: Amy Kean's own artvertising, created by Graffiti Life for her book, The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks.
The shouty, dirty, floating display ads might have to go, but something amazing might emerge to replace it. And… people might like advertising more. What if… what if our industry didn’t get worse, but got better, instead? Those ASA demands of being decent, legal, honest and truthful aren’t enough anymore. We need more. People deserve more. We need to be good. We should want to be good.
The great thing about futurology is that you’re afforded the privilege of imagining a possible future and relaying it as a call to arms, and then reminding people of the role we all play in making it happen. That’s what I’m doing, here. There’re some very important things happening in politics at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lobby for less important stuff, that could still make a huge difference. Not every brand has the omnipresence to create a map of Madrid with its logos (mapvertising?) or even the money to build benchvertising, but we all play a role, and have the time and mental capacity to think about what good looks like.