When the Whole World is an Ad

Reports coming out of CES in Vegas this week has brand marketing bigwigs talking about a world with no ads. Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer for Procter & Gamble, for example, postulated “a world with no ads.”

For P&G, this is a logical enough development. After all, a year ago, it laid out stringent rules on digital ad metrics, and insisted agencies and adtech suppliers follow them. Time to “It’s time to grow up,” Pritchard said back then. No love lost, it seems, between the consumer goods giant and the digital advertising space.

Of course, P&G has a big enough megaphone to make it look like it’s choosing its own future. But there are all kinds of ways consumers themselves are cutting the cord when it comes to advertising. By…well, by cutting the cord when it comes to cable TV, choosing to consume content on channels where they have at least a little more control over how many ads they see. And of course the use of ad blocking technology, which is growing with ominous steadiness (doubling from 2014 to 2018).

Not to mention that many of us hardly see online banner ads in any case, and outpace Quick Draw McGraw when it comes to closing pop-ups or navigating to an alternative tab until the commercial is over.

It’s fair to say that alternatives to traditional ads have been under development for some time. In fact, viewed as a form of “sponsorship,” there’s nothing really new about branded or native content at all (gladiator contests were sponsored in Ancient Rome). What varies these days is how overt or direct the sponsorship is — from flooding the zone with branding and product references at one extreme, to being very loosely associated with the content at the other. In the latter case, audience engagement is everything, and if the audience somehow understands at some level that the content was brought to them by Coke, or General Motors, or Heinz Ketchup — or, indeed, P&G  job done.

The catch is that with the digitization of our entire environment (and by “our,” I mean the environment of developed countries), the entire environment is potential ad inventory. It’s simply a matter of connecting the Internet of Things, in the broadest sense, with content delivered from the cloud.

Think of the advances in digital OOO, for example. It’s already possible to deliver targeted ads to digital billboards programmatically, responding to the proximity of opted-in mobile devices. But I’m thinking about what happens when we step beyond billboards and ads. Content can be delivered to any connected surface — bus shelters, store windows, the sides of buses, walls; and the content needn’t be traditional ads — entertainment, information, crowd-sourced cat videos; it can be anything, with light or heavy branding.

But what about in-home? Voice has already stormed the domestic castle, of course. A home voice device can easily conjure a branded conversation in the living room or bedroom, and if content can be programmatically delivered out-of-home, it can be delivered anywhere.

Finally, add a layer of AR over all the above. Branded content (again, not necessarily ads) can be super-imposed on the physical environment. Soon enough someone will figure out the kind of light, unobtrusive eyewear or headwear which will allow us to move simultaneously through the real and the virtual environment, fed entertainment and information at every turn.

In other words, there are no technical barriers to turning the world around us into content, and selling everything from the floor below us to the ceiling above as inventory. We’ll be able to live entirely within a story, or set of stories, created by brands. The only question is when we’ll find time to buy anything.

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