There is no checking the juggernaut of invention

A design consultancy has developed the ‘talking poster’. Will it herald a noisy future in which ads start shouting at people in the streets? asks Iain Murray

Advertising is a clamorous business. Unless you live in some remote spot with only the questing beasts and circling birds for company, you are daily assailed by the shrill cry of commerce. Like a pedestrian of old passing through the flea market, you are bombarded on every side and at every turn by the competing halitosis of sellers shouting their wares. Ours, however, being a literate age, the cries are for the most part silent and confined to the written word.

They are no less intrusive for that. On the fringe of advertising, where the pickings are not so lush, inventive minds are constantly searching for new media, new tricks. How about ads on the bottom of beer glasses? Or projected on buildings by laser light? Or stuck on supermarket trolleys? Or pinned at the eyeline above gents’ urinals? No one can know whether these ads are effective. If by some chance, an unzippered male runs through the street like a latter-day Archimedes in search of the Doublemint gum he’s just seen promoted above the porcelain, well, that’s a bonus. Getting the brand name in the public eye is usually the limit of ambition.

In Scotland, however, events have taken a sinister turn for the worse. A design consultancy called Harris Hynd has developed the “talking poster”, a monstrous invention that promises to utter generic sales pitches, play music or produce sound effects when passers-by approach. The effects could be painful, and not just to the ear. Let us for a moment revisit the man attending to the call of nature in a public washroom. Suppose, instead of casting his eye around with the affected nonchalance that is customary on these occasions and harmlessly lighting upon an ad, he is midway through the task for which nature has summoned him when suddenly the wall speaks. “How about a HobNob?,” it booms.

Shock can take many forms, not least a sharp, involuntary physical movement of the very kind that is least wanted in the circumstances adumbrated above.

That is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. Although Harris Hynd intends first to experiment with the system in department stores and shopping centres, it muses wistfully about other possibilities, such as bus shelters. “Where before you might have had a picture of a drink being poured into a glass, now you can hear the drink being poured. Or you might hear a voice talking to you,” says company director Norman Harris.

It is difficult to be agnostic about noise: either you love it or you loathe it. Some people – most notably builders and carpet fitters – cannot be at peace without it and carry their transistor radios with them wherever they go. That includes fishing trips to the river bank where once stillness and solitude were sought. Others flee from public places – pubs and shops are the worst offenders – where noise is sprayed with the force of a fireman’s hose. The talking poster is bound to exacerbate these divisions. Some will shrug off the sound, ignore it, or being totally inured to extraneous decibels, not hear it. Others will take offence.

John Stewart is chairman of the UK Noise Association, an organisation whose ambiguous name might mean either that it exists to promote as much noise as possible and has a membership composed largely of carpet fitters and anglers, or that it opposes noise and goes around saying “Shush!” in the noisy way that opponents of noise adopt. It turns out to be the latter.

“The whole thing is unnecessary,” says Mr Stewart of the talking advertisement hoarding. “If posters start shouting at people in the street, the most natural response would be to shout back in frustration.”

You can see what he means. And where would that get us? Which is more unreal, posters that talk to people or people who talk to posters? It is perhaps fitting that the experiment is to take place in Scotland, where the national beverage has the effect of prompting men of a certain vintage and dishevelment to argue with themselves in the street. One can imagine quite a lively exchange between a bra poster that said “Hello Boys” and a Scotsman who is hard of hearing.

Alan James, chief executive of the Outdoor Advertising Association, takes an understandably cautious view of the infusion of technology into a medium that has changed little since primitive man first etched the cave wall with a picture of his dinner on the hoof. “It would have to be of sufficient volume to be heard,” says Mr James, feeling his way tentatively towards a grasp of the science. “But you cannot have it going off at 4am.”

Indeed not. One has to draw the line somewhere and four in the morning seems as good a place as anywhere. “Going off” seems an apposite term, too, since it suggests ordnance, detonation and, possibly, collateral damage.

All things considered, the talking poster is an idea best forgotten. Then again, there is no checking the juggernaut of progress and invention beneath whose ever-advancing wheels we are all, sooner or later, ground. If science decrees that walls are to accost us, sometimes shouting importunately, at other times whispering seductively, for the most part talking nonsense, who are we to resist? After all, we got used to television.

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