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Future Tense: Advertising in 2049

Bond University marked the 30th anniversary of its founding in 2019. Five of the university’s leading academics predict how their areas of expertise will change in the three decades leading up to the 60th anniversary in 2049.

Assistant Professor of Advertising Dr Sven Brodmerkel gazes into the future of\advertising. 

Minority Report, a dystopian Hollywood movie from 2002, depicts a future society in which technology has become extremely advanced, allowing for – among many other things – the hyper-targeting of advertising.

Ubiquitous sensors scan shoppers’ retinas and respond with personalised sales pitches delivered by holographic virtual assistants cognisant of consumers’ individual purchase history. 

Maybe surprisingly, the future imagined in this movie was the year 2054. Surprising, because from today’s perspective this scenario features little in terms of technology that would not already be around or close to becoming reality. What then does this tell us about the future of advertising? 

One conclusion we could draw is that we are approaching the ‘end of advertising history’ even more quickly than anticipated.

I am playing here on the (in)famous essay ‘The End of History’ by political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama argued that history – understood here as the battle between different ideas for how to organise society – had come to an end.

Liberal democracy had won, and all future history would take place within this last remaining political framework. Small events, but no new ‘big ideas’.

Dr Sven Brodmerkel

Currently, advertising appears to see itself on a similar ‘end of history’ trajectory.

Once the data-driven personalisation of commercial promotion is perfected, advertising has (conceptually) reached the final stage of its development. What else could possibly be needed beyond completely individualised advertising?

Well, Fukuyama was not exactly spot on. This should make us careful about trying to predict the future. But let’s nevertheless entertain our futuristic imagination.

Based on the current trajectory of advertising I can imagine three different scenarios. 

The utopian scenario: In 2049, the offspring of Siri, Alexa and similar virtual assistants have grown into sentient robot-butlers who do most of the shopping for a population enjoying the benefits of the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence over previous decades.

Advertising is thus mostly targeted at these robots and has consequently turned into the art of writing algorithms that are capable of ‘persuading’ other algorithms.

The last remaining form of ‘traditional advertising’ is brand-driven entertainment. Amazon provides today’s model for this beginning merge between algorithmically-guided consumption and associated entertainment services.

The dystopian scenario: In 2049, state and commercial surveillance are seamlessly integrated. Consumer-citizens are ranked and rated on more or less every aspect of their daily lives.

This categorisation has led to a highly differentiated caste system, and the main function of advertising is to reinforce people’s caste identities.

Thanks to advanced hyper-targeting, consumers are only exposed to ads that correspond to their socio-economic status and their allocated role within society.  

The hopeful scenario: History tells us that we often overestimate the degree of change that comes with new media devices, channels and platforms – at least with regard to advertising.

After all, an ad on YouTube or Facebook is not that different to a traditional TV ad or even a simple billboard.

So-called word-of mouth marketing is as old as human civilisation. And professional ‘influencers’ offered their promotional services way back in the 19th century (think of the famous ‘claqueurs’ – professional applauders hired by French theatres and opera houses).

Change is most often a matter of degree rather than of kind. Therefore, in 2049 we will be exposed to advertising that fundamentally works more or less similar to today. It grabs attention, entertains, seduces, persuades, interrupts and annoys as it has always done. And it does this across a variety of media channels and forms of content. 

What these scenarios highlight is how deeply advertising, technology, and democracy have become intertwined.

Whether or not our media system provides us with the necessary space for deliberation, community and civilised public discourse is – for better or worse – dependent on the economics of advertising and our choices as (media) consumers. 

I personally root for the third scenario. But to make it happen, we need to constantly remind ourselves of three important insights: First, that the status of being a citizen is qualitatively different from being a consumer; second, that eliminating risks often leads to the elimination of freedoms; and, third, that maximum convenience does not equal maximum quality of life.

I trust that our (future) students are attentive to these important insights. 

Future Tense: Cities in 2049
Future Tense: Sport in 2049
Future Tense: Technology in 2049
Future Tense: Medicine in 2049

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