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