The opening scene of the film Blade Runner shows a cityscape that is alive with moving advertising messages. Posters have disappeared from the outdoor environment and huge TV-like screens have taken their place.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film wasn’t the first to explore the idea. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, TV screens in people’s homes were used by Big Brother to communicate directly with the characters in the book.
Like many ideas that originate in science fiction, the reality is often stranger than anything imagined by authors and film-makers.
These days, technology exists to create poster sites that read the personal details of individuals walking past from a chip inside their mobile phone or personal digital assistant (these devices will emerge in the next few years). The ad shown could then be tailored to whichever consumer group is most prevalent in the vicinity at that time of the day.
The same wireless technology standard – Bluetooth – will allow retailers to check the personal details of passing pedestrians and send them a text message or phone them up, inviting them in to take advantage of a particular offer tailored to that individual’s tastes.
Opt-in e-mail – whereby consumers agree to receive advertising messages in return for incentives – is gaining force and individuals will be encouraged to carry one of these phones. Keith Roberts, a director at outdoor specialist Concord – the company that claims to have coined the term “ambient” to cover any outdoor advertising – says people will be encouraged to buy these phones with special offers or discounts.
“Poster sites can build a profile of the different consumers going past at different times of day,” says Roberts, suggesting it would be useful in stations or supermarkets. “Friday-night shoppers could be targeted with ready meals and Tuesday-morning shoppers with family offers, for example.”
Something for everyone
There seems to be the technology for almost any niche approach that advertisers would want to pursue. The only things hampering progress are the initial high costs, data protection issues and planning regulations – placing moving images where they could distract motorists, for example, is not a good idea. In some cases, though, technology provides a solution and then poses a problem.
In the face of impressive developments such as Bluetooth, it’s tempting to forget that highly accurate information on supermarket shoppers already exists, or that vouchers and flyers are a fine way of informing pedestrians about special offers on the high street.
Brian Millar, creative director at brand communications agency Myrtle says: “The key to using ambient media is to ask yourself: just because I can, does it mean that I should? You have to be so careful with ‘push’ media. It’s even more obtrusive with mobile phones, because they are such intimate things. Unsolicited messages could put people off the medium completely. At least with a leaflet, people can refuse to take one if they choose.”
New technologies are certainly helping to develop the ambient sector: its revenue is predicted to rise from £2.7m to £8.7m this year, according to outdoor specialist Outdoor Connection.
Emerging ideas have the advantage of novelty: any new medium will attract attention the first time it is used. Thus, Concord’s work for The Independent newspaper projecting the message “To Let” onto the Houses of Parliament at election time and “England expects” under pictures of Beckham and others onto the White Cliffs of Dover for Adidas during the World Cup grabbed valuable column inches.
Another attention-grabbing projection method is The Media Vehicle’s 3-D Imager. This makes an object appear to float in mid-air, about three feet from the screen. It has been used to advertise trainers in NikeTown stores in London and Berlin, says Media Vehicle chief executive Jessica Hatfield, and in shopping centres to advertise food brands such as Smints and Seeds of Change organic sauces.
Hatfield envisages a place for the imager in pubs and clubs, where bottles of drink could float above the bar – though that could be somewhat unnerving for customers after a long night.
The Media Vehicle is pioneering lenticular technology (flat images that appear to display depth, motion or both), which has progressed a long way from winking eyes and smiley badges.
“You can now have posters with images that appear to be protruding three inches out,” says Hatfield, “or ones that carry two-and-a-half seconds of film.”
One issue that arises as posters make way for moving messages, is whether to categorise the advertising as outdoor or television, since both types of expertise are needed.
Outdoor Connection chief executive Carole Kerman wants to claim such ads under her banner. “Better measurement sys
tems make it an easier fit into outdoor. BARB isn’t really capable of measuring it, whereas Postar ratings can help to quantify and understand the audience,” she says.
Nick Maddison, account director at outdoor media specialist Blade, points out that issues arise about the siting of screens that project moving images. “Traditionally, outdoor offered a static message to a moving audience, while moving images require a static audience,” he says.
The captive audiences provided on station platforms are making stations some of the most popular venues for these methods of screen advertising. Many ventures are under way to investigate placing cross-track screens on the London Underground and other types of broadcast media on the Docklands Light Rail, on trams, buses and elsewhere.
The first station screens to broadcast ads will undoubtedly make people to stop and look. But as the novelty wears off, so may the attention paid to them. Start-up costs are huge, so pioneers of this technology need to be certain that the screens will not be written off as gimmicks. As a technology becomes more accepted and mainstream costs will decrease.
The uptake of plasma screens, for example, has been hampered until now by their prohibitive cost, but they will soon be available for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, says Clive Punter, joint managing director of media company TDI. He predicts this will catapult the technology into the mainstream.
Advertising methods using new technology have another huge advantage over traditional posters: speed. Rather than waiting for the man with the paste bucket, brush and ladder to get to the site, screens and projections can be changed instantly from a central location.
One ambient campaign that took advantage of this was carried out by Myrtle, on behalf of financial information site Breakingviews.com. The site was set up by former Financial Times journalists to provide instant opinions on City news, hours before the papers published their take on unfolding events.
“Key City figures tend to arrive at stations such as Liverpool Street and Cannongate between 7am and 7.30am, having read the FT’s Lex column. They go straight to work and into an analysts’ meeting,” explains Myrtle’s Millar. “We created tickermenÃ to walk around the stations at that time. They looked like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix – long coat, shiny sunglasses – and had screens on their backs with scrolling text containing up-to-the-minute financial opinions.
“Judging from the number of people in smart suits who read the scrolling text and hauled out their mobile phones, the tickermen actually provided a valuable service to those people. Daily registrations on the Breakingviews.com site doubled in a week.”
It is not just ambient media that are being helped by advancements technology. Distribution and organisation of outdoor campaigns are also being simplified. Blade, for example, has recently done a deal with Internet-based media trading company Optimad to provide an online information platform to advise media planners, buyers, outdoor specialists and brand managers on ambient media planning.
New print production methods are also allowing greater speed and flexibility in ambient media, as well as reducing costs. Digital printing allows posters of unforeseen sizes to be created in a fraction of the time that it used to take.
As part of its campaign for Breakingviews.com, Myrtle printed 48-sheet posters onto Advans and placed them in strategic City sites a couple of hours after a big news story had broken. This was made possible by digital printing and fast-drying glue.
Six-sheet poster sites have been created that contain an integral printer with 100 sheets of paper. Advertising designs can be sent to the printer electronically, which can then be printed out for immediate display. This does have its flaws though, such as the printer breaking.
There have been other developments in paper technology. Concord, for example, created a campaign for Radion using heat-sensitive bus tickets that were impregnated with the smell of the washing powder.
Improvements in printing on vinyl and metal have also allowed advertising to be carried on phone boxes and on metal strap handles on London Underground (used by Concord to advertise Vaseline deodorant). Meanwhile, Dupont is producing a light-emitting polymer, barely thicker than the paper used for posters. It can be rolled up for transportation, yet can carry images sent to it remotely.
Companies such as 3M are experimenting with new formulas of glue that withstand bad weather conditions or that can be used on tricky materials such as mirrors. When Mother created the ambient campaign for Britart.com last year (labelling trees, lamp-posts and the like as if they were works of art), it took advice from 3M on how to get its pavement labels to stay put.
Campaigns such as those for Britart and Breakingviews make an important point about ambient media. While emerging technologies played a part in making them possible, it was a good, original idea from the start that made them truly successful.
As with all advertising, the best ambient ideas need to be witty and appropriate and to entice consumers rather than to slap them in the face when they are not in the mood. This becomes more true as the techniques become more widespread. Gimmicks can be as irritating as they are attention-grabbing, and no amount of technology will make up for a lack of a good creative idea.