Some people think that the future of ambient media was best expressed by the opening scenes of the Ridley Scott-classic Bladerunner.
Harrison Ford’s burnt-out cop Decker moves through a nightmare future Los Angeles, where the moral bankruptcy of society is underlined by omnipresent advertising, which even dominates the skyline, and is projected onto huge TV screens attached to the sides of buildings or carried by airships cruising slowly overhead.
But as far as most of industry specialists are concerned, the latest technological trickery comes a poor second to having a great idea.
“Technology has very little part to play in ambient media. The whole Bladerunner scenario is happening, in bits and pieces – but the reality of a moving 48-sheet poster? That’s still a few years away. Even if the technology was cheaply available, I’m not convinced it would work,” claims Alan Greaney, a director of specialist ambient media company Media Initiatives.
And, he adds: “I wouldn’t necessarily call it ambient anyway. The majority of ambient media is ideas driven, not technology driven. It’s more about old media being put in new places,” – like advertising on the back of till receipts or bus tickets, on petrol pump nozzles, on supermarket floors or even posters on shopping trolleys.
So to a large extent the art of the ambient media specialist lies in finding new ways to get old messages across – and while it is not exclusively about gaining extra impact by putting messages in places where people don’t expect to find them, most of the better-known examples of ambient advertising in recent years have relied on novelty or even shock value.
However, technological advances have certainly played their part in providing added opportunities to shock. Talking and scented bus shelters, interactive poster ads which detect the presence of people by body heat or by motion, even talking magazine ads – all have been tried.
As Nigel Mansell, managing director of outdoor media specialist Concord, observes: “We’ve done smelly bus shelters and smelly bus tickets; there’s a 3D bus ticket ad about to be launched, although you need to use red and green glasses to get the full effect. We did a talking bus shelter for Nintendo’s Donkey Kong game over three years ago.”
But even when it comes to ambient media activities which involve something a bit bigger than a bus ticket or a bus shelter – like the White Cliffs of Dover, or Battersea Power Station, for example – it turns out that the “technology” involved can often be nothing more complex than an old-fashioned slide projector.
Tony Barton, deputy managing director of The Marketing Store Worldwide, says that when his company wanted to project ScotRail ads onto important Scottish monuments he thought the company would have to use an advanced computer imaging system: “But all we needed was a 35mm projector.”
Matthew Hooper, managing director of sales promotion consultancy Interfocus, argues that while “technology can play a part in ambient media, it doesn’t have to”.
“There’s little technology in-volved in putting an ad in the holes on a golf course – yet it’s very definitely ambient media. It’s new, it’s different, it’s targeted. It’s intrusive – and not necessarily in a bad sense of the word. It’s fresh.”
Greaney argues that ambient media should be more about finding ways to surround the target market with the client’s communications on a long-term basis than about one-off technology-based stunts.
Certainly many ambient media practitioners argue that technological gimmickry presents a distorted view of the ambient media industry and what it can do for clients.
Indeed, many of the better known examples of the latest gadgetry being used – like the Adidas ad projected with laser beams onto the White Cliffs of Dover, which Concord claims is still the biggest projection in Britain – are more valuable in terms of generating publicity and gaining free editorial and broadcast coverage than they are for reaching a particular target market.
While such stunts have their advantages, other forms of ambient media are far more successful at providing what Barton suggests is the main purpose of the medium – “additional ways to gain brand presence”.
He argues, though, that executions based on new technology do not have to be short-term, “one shot” promotions.
The Marketing Store, for example, has recently created an interactive games machine to help promote Carling beer. The machines – under the title “The World of Carling” – offer three different games: a trivia quiz relating to football and tying in with Carling’s sponsorship of the Premier League; a “Match the Difference” game; and another quiz with questions on British heritage.
Players need to have bought a pint of Carling to get the tokens to play the games, while a high score will be rewarded with a coupon for a free pint. Other third-party rewards are also being explored, including coupons for CDs or promotional clothing.
The machines will also collect data on players (on a purely voluntary basis) and on their drinking patterns. Barton says that the machines, which went into pubs at the beginning of this year, are “a way to create impact, but also a promotions vehicle, a data capture vehicle, and a relationship building vehicle”.
Graphically, the machines have been deliberately based on the Sony PlayStation games console, which Barton says is widely recognised by the target young male market. “In terms of its visual style, it has to be competitive,” he says, otherwise it will fail to attract players.
In order to avoid over-exposure for the machines (and also to save money), each one is in a pub for only six weeks, and then moves on. More than 2,000 pubs have been involved in the promotion so far.
The World of Carling promotion highlights another problem facing ambient media specialists and the use of the latest technological devices: are these machines actually ambient media, or are they new media?
Barton would argue that the way the Carling promotion works – promoting the brand inside pubs, and offering the opportunity to reinforce purchasing behaviour – makes it ambient.
Similarly, the latest developments in flatscreen TV and in multiscreen video walls already allow television advertisements or promotional videos to be shown in public spaces such as airports, train stations, underground platforms or retail outlets.
Some systems even allow the public to choose which ads they want to see through keyboards or touchscreen TVs – but are these properly ambient media, are they an offshoot of broadcast television or are they (again) new media?
Mansell says that he has come across one company which plans to place large gas plasma flatscreen display units alongside main roads. These screens, controlled from a central location, will show a variety of ads depending on the time of day and the sort of traffic which will be using the roads.
During the morning rush hour, programming might be ads for men’s toiletries and shaving items, while during the afternoon school run it might be women’s toiletries or grocery products.
Of course, technology is a catch-all term, a bit like ambient media itself: and technological advances don’t always lead to something as obvious as an interactive kiosk or a 3D flatscreen. New digital printing techniques, for example, coupled with the development of new materials to print onto have allowed the creation of giant posters which would have smashed the average advertiser’s budget only a few years ago.
So the developers of Printworks in Manchester, a new leisure complex being built on an old Mirror Group printing plant, have been able to surround the whole construction site with a 130 metre by 17 metre custom-designed poster which looks like a newspaper, complete with crossword and headlines about the complex. It may look like just a poster, but it is one of the biggest to be hung in the UK. It is printed on PVC and serves the dual purpose of telling passers-by about the development and protecting them from falling debris.
Paul Whitehurst, managing director of print specialists Cestrian, which provided the poster, says: “Theoretically, a poster this size would have been possible five years ago. But it wouldn’t have been commercially viable. The latest digital printing technology makes things like this affordable.”
Similarly, it is new printing techniques and materials which have driven the development of wraparound ads for buses and trains, while new heat resistant and colour stable paints allow ads to be painted on aeroplanes and even rockets.
Mansell has a vision of the future where technology-based media opportunities are “sold daypart, like TV”. Perhaps the science fiction vision of a talking 48-sheet poster is closer than we think.
And perhaps we should not be so surprised at finding Bladerunner turning into reality: after all, Ridley Scott learned his trade direct ing TV ads.