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Mad Men of the future will be brain scientists and dream experts

He’ll be manipulating your brain before too long. amira_a/flickr, CC BY-SA

It’s been 60 years since the first TV ad was broadcast in the UK. In that time, we’ve moved from the innocent grainy black-and-white “Tingle of Health” of Gibbs SR toothpaste, to the sophisticated hyper-reality of 4K TV and beyond, in lock-step with developing communications technologies. The next 60 years will certainly see an even faster pace of change. So what can we look forward to (or not) in the realm of advertising?

Between us and the horizon we can already see a dramatic move from old-fashioned “broadcasting”, through current “narrowcasting” (ever smaller, more specialist audiences) to full personalisation, a la Minority Report. 4OD provided a good example recently. When I signed onto the site, a clip appeared of a person walking along pulling a case with a swinging label – reading Leslie.

As our interface with the world increasingly collapses to our screens it will become easier – and more profitable – for advertisers to “see” us, recognise our interests and motivations, and tailor ad content accordingly. Big data and Amazon’s “curated suggestions” will evolve into algorithms that sell us more, confirming our tribal memberships within social media as much by our purchases as by our values.

Douglas Atkin has pointed the way to vastly increased immersion in “our” brands as the source of our identities. He calls this a new “nationalism of the mind” driven by a need for belonging in an increasingly fragmented world. Like an audience in a darkened theatre (or a riotous street mob) we will cede a part of our individuality to the group – becoming both more, and less, of ourselves in the process.

Consumer power

But this somewhat dystopic vision does perhaps have a brighter side. While we will no doubt be “sold to” with incredible efficiency using our online social networks, the flip side of this will be the increasing transparency imposed upon commercial organisations from ubiquitous “consumer ratings”. This, together with the low cost of entry to mass communications for protest groups, is already having dramatic effects, causing large organisations to align themselves with their own – consumer-driven, pro-social – brand values (think: the Dove campaign), or suffer a “consumer spring” as ordinary people become aware of dubious practice (think: the Starbucks boycott).

A further expression of such increased consumer awareness might be a move to a more “grown-up” style of advertising, eschewing the use of fear (of not fitting in, of loss of status, of not being “good” enough, of difference) and not using our baser desires (sex, greed, anger, laziness) against us. The forces of social media are likely to move the focus of advertising from a “what I have” source of self-esteem to a “what I know” and “what I do” social connection. But if this is to occur, it may not be for a while – this shift is just visible, but on the far horizon.

Immersive virtual realities and “game worlds” generated by burgeoning computing power and sponsored by your favourite brands, complete with product placements are already becoming a theme. And, perhaps 30 years out, the rising tide of neuro-marketing is discernible.

Currently limited to observing which brain regions “light up” when we think of Coca Cola (and whether this is different to the “Pepsi” area), our fundamental ideas of how we work – as individuals and as social animals – are being interrogated as never before. The insights gained from these enquiries will provide advertisers with the most incredibly potent tools with which to fine tune their ability to influence not just our brand choices, but potentially our political allegiances, our values and even our sense of self.

The tension this generates between acceptable influence and coercion – and even the erosion of free will – can only drive our increasing awareness of the dangers inherent in libertarian capitalism. We go forth in the hope that legislation can keep pace.

Selling in your sleep

Over the horizon – the next-but-one “big thing” in advertising – is of course harder to spot, since it is likely to evolve with technologies and shifts in social priorities that are inherently unpredictable.

However, the speculative money is on dreams. Yes, even our most intimate, private worlds are likely to yield to the power of marketeers if nascent approaches can be taken as any indication. Recent research in psychology has confirmed the existence (long affirmed by mystics) of a strange phenomenon called “lucid dreaming”: a state of consciousness in which we are both asleep and dreaming, and simultaneously conscious of these facts – in effect, awake whilst we dream.

Preliminary “communications” between the dream world and our waking reality – and vice versa – have already taken place. Surely it can’t be long before jingles and brand names are beamed into our resting minds. Brand positioning would become literally the stuff of nightmares, the “Tingle of Health” completely bypassing our critical faculties and finding residence in our insecure, malleable unconscious minds, once we’ve opted in to the benefits of compelling “designer dream experiences” beyond our imaginations (think: Inception but with product placement).

We can only hope, perhaps, that from a vantage point 60 years from now, people will look back at our times with the same disdain we sometimes feel for the ethics and practices of the “salesman” of the 50s, with a perspective granted by significant advances in consumer awareness and consequent pro-social commercial behaviours. Or, at the very least, that it remains true that not everyone can be fooled, all of the time.

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