Ben Davis: AR fails on its only selling point – escaping reality

Too many marketers are getting swept up in new ways to execute their campaigns, losing focus on the message in favour of the medium.

Augmented reality

My grumpiness was mostly kept in check over Christmas and new year, but I let myself unwind slightly by shouting at the radio when one presenter was discussing the future of television. Could it be interactive, they pondered, like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch episode?

I like Black Mirror but all I could think was that if I wanted to ‘choose my own adventure’, I wouldn’t be watching the television. I fully expect TV to take care of the narrative, so I can concentrate on eating chocolate.

Interactive is a very boring word and one I always feel is used in some way to mitigate for an experience that quickly becomes dull.

The interactivity of the Amazon Echo is the promise of an AI that then constantly apologises for its lack of comprehension. The interactivity of augmented reality (AR) is the promise of an escape from reality that only succeeds in bringing me further down to earth as I look at my banal surroundings through a viewfinder. AR continues to stick around in campaigns here and there when marketers should know better.

Only a carefree child of seven years would willingly want to ‘interact’ with a bottle of cola. Everyone else just wants to quench their thirst and perhaps to lose themselves for a moment, like the adverts on TV have taught us.

Nothing kills those fizzy drink reveries like downloading an app so you can point your phone at a bottle and wait for uninspired imagery to overlay.

AR-enabled bottles of pop are something that happened a few years ago (Pepsi Max had a campaign powered by the ill-fated Blippar, for example), but ‘connected packaging’ is still an idea kicking around in FMCG. Partly this is because AR can now be experienced using the mobile web; while the AR hype has picked up since Apple and Google launched ARKit and ARCore, respectively, and MagicLeap began selling its much-anticipated headsets last year.

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Most marketers with the requisite budget, however, are now savvy enough to realise AR is fit for certain specialist use cases (games, selfies, perhaps virtual ‘try before you buy’), but isn’t something that can simply be added to any campaign or product, ad hoc. This is why Blippar has faced financial difficulty – the use cases just aren’t compelling or broad enough.

In early 2018, Netflix and music-recognition app Shazam designed some AR posters (conceived by AR specialist Zappar) to promote the series Glow, and though I didn’t think it was an amazing campaign it at least incorporated selfies, allowing people to envisage themselves as wrestlers and share photos.

On the whole, though, I find the idea of augmenting campaign creative a strange one. Firstly, the additional virtual content will be completely invisible to the majority of people. But worse than that, could incorporating AR even constrain the primary creative itself (the poster or packaging), or at best merely distract those that engage with it? It’s a bit like when every small business began adding a decal to their trucks or a message on their flyers saying ‘like us on Facebook’. It’s another thing to distract from the message.

This year should be all about great creative. Not about silly executions. AR may well be the right medium for you, but unless you’re sure, leave well alone.

Publishers still seem to be backing AR, too. USA Today launched its first AR app last year, Time Magazine produced its first AR-enabled issue in January 2018, and the Washington Post and New York Times continued to release AR projects over the past 12 months.

It’s not just big publishers either – The Big Issue has launched AR tech recently with its January 2019 issue.

To some extent, I understand this trend. Publishers are keen to take a punt on new formats which may get the attention of sponsors or younger subscribers. But these efforts are very much punts.

I hate myself for writing such a meandering and negative article so early in 2019 – especially seeing as I don’t care much for all the naysayers who turn out every new year, after the Lord Mayor’s Show of annual marketing predictions.

Nevertheless, the point I want to make is that in the UK, consumers have been crying out for escapism since the 2016 EU referendum. ‘New’ interactive tech like AR and Alexa ‘skills’ do not yet deliver escapism.

I’m not an academic, but let me misuse that famous Marshall McLuhan line. The medium is the message – so marketers should avoid crap media.

This year should be all about great creative. Not about silly executions. Nike showed in 2018 how consumers still only care about the creative, whatever your agency tells you.

AR may well be the right medium for you, but unless you’re sure, leave well alone.

Ben Davis is the editor of Econsultancy

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Comments
  • Julian Pratt 12 Feb 2019 at 8:28 am

    “The interactivity of augmented reality (AR) is the promise of an escape from reality”

    That’s more VR tbh. 😀

    I agree though that AR is a limited experience as you need to keep holding your phone in front of you.

    Pity the photo in the article is one thing AR is good at, offering new layers in a crowded physical shopping experience. But yes, lets skim past the novelty and only use the good stuff.

  • Declan Hill 12 Feb 2019 at 5:12 pm

    I found Bandersnatch to be disappointing for a number of reasons. First, as you say, some critics are saying that the future of TV is interactive. However, the nature, scale and cost of an ‘interactive’ book and a filmed TV show are hugely different and for the latter, prohibitive; secondly, apparently there are five possible endings to Bandersnatch but I wasn’t aware what a ‘satisfactory’ ending was (I reached one, but not sure if it was as satisfactory as it was going to get). Which leads me to my main point, that the whole ‘the user controls the story’ is nonsense because Charlie Brooker was controlling the story far more than I was. Giving us a binary choice between Coco Pops and Sugar Puffs is one thing, but a binary choice between ‘fight her’ and ‘run away’ only brings us to possibilities in Charlie Brooker’s imagination, not mine. As we’ve seen since 2016 and in every US presidential election, binary choices rarely lead to a satisfactory conclusion, especially when the aim is unification. And James T Kirk passed the Federation exam by saying there had to be a different option to the ones being presented.

    As stated above, a lot of it comes down to what people think of as interactivity. One of the boys in the Lynx AR stunt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4tvqalREho) talks about “the angels came on the screen and you could just interact with them”. But he wasn’t interacting with them, they were acting next to each other with the impression that they were connected. They were no more interacting than Come Play With Us in Fahrenheit 451. Unless the user can influence the sphere of the content, then they themselves are puppets of the content controller. Hey, it looks good, but does it achieve what the marketer wants?

    Whenever a new innovation is hailed as the saviour of the entertainment industry, I’m always reminded of the Sean Hughes line, “What’s on telly tonight. Oh, Songs of Praise. Hey, it’s in Nicam Digital Stereo!” But if the aim of marketing is to lead interested parties to a desired conclusion in an interesting fashion, then surely it could be an ideal tool to use. If I, Charlie Brooker, want to sell Coca-Cola Super Plus 2000 then I have a fun tool to use to take my prospects there. The problem seems to be that marketers have used it as a gimmick in the same way that the Talkies, split-screen and 3-D have been used – all show and no story.

    Any time spent ‘interacting’ is only going to be as good as its content, which is why Bandersnatch appealed to begin with but ultimately ended disappointingly (unless Brooker’s point was that TV in the future isn’t going to be interactive). Apart from the Glow example that you gave, are there any stories using AR that have used the technology well (other than Pokemon Go)? And are there any scenarios in which anyone can see it working well?

    • Ben Davis 15 Feb 2019 at 9:16 am

      Hi Declan. I won’t forget that Sean Hughes line, thanks. Interestingly, Lego released eight AR sets yesterday and they look pretty interesting – an evolving story to come with each set. But toys are perhaps a unique use. I’d love to see stats on Ikea usage – though placing a sofa in your lounge sounds useful in theory, the percentage of Ikea shoppers that have the app must be pretty small.

    • Julian Pratt 15 Feb 2019 at 3:47 pm

      I think Brooker was commenting on the illusion of choice. He’s a bugger like that.
      That’s why I loved it, the claustrophobic sense of inevitabilty of an endless choice of painted doors..

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