The public sphere, our little clown’s autopsy. With marketers so ravenous to calibrate our consumption patterns they actually embed themselves among us– donning tattoos and piercings, or whatever styles their subjects embody– and document our lifestyles. They compile their findings into power-point presentations and sell them to companies that want to tap into consumer spending habits. This relatively new form of guerilla marketing, called “cool hunting”, often targets the youth demographic (whose annual spending is well over $100 billion). It is either an innovative method by which to conduct market research or an impediment to the organic evolution of culture—it depends on who you talk to.
After first reading about cool hunting in ’s No Logo years ago during my intensely liberal Santa Cruz education (full disclosure), I began sending my resume to some of these firms in the hope that they would unwittingly afford a Gonzo-style cynic an inside look at their methods. Only two of them took the bait. A Los Angeles based cool hunting company called Look-Look paid me $150 to photograph examples of green-washing and experiential retail. Another company, The Intelligence Group, supplied me with a real gem: sample pages of The Cassandra Report, their tri-monthly analysis of Gen X/Gen Y lifestyle trends which companies like Verizon, Microsoft, MTV and dozens more subscribe to at the annual cost of $35,000-$50,000.
One of the trends featured in that issue is something called HyperSpace. According to the Cassandra Report: “Everyday objects will become computer interfaces – new opportunities for marketers and brands to embed advertisements and fully understand consumer preferences.” This concept deposits social networking into the real world. People with Internet-ready cell phones will be able to access on-line information about objects and locations in their physical environments by entering codes found there, or by simply scanning them with their phones. Users of this network will be able to tag these objects and locations—clicking on them as if hyperlinks, essentially—and share their latest finds (such as a great new diner!) with friends and people prowling for recommendations.
Pioneering entities, such as Yellow Card, Socialight, and Semapedia.org, are promoting what they consider to be functionalities of Web 3.0. Semapedia.org is a non-profit that wants to “connect the virtual and physical world” by providing cell-phone readable 2D barcodes that people can use to link to wikipedia.org. These barcodes, and “triggers” like them, are already common in Japan and parts of Europe. According to Socialight Co-founder Dan Melinger, HyperSpace represents a “new paradigm for communication, [utilizing] asynchroyonous place-based messaging.” Melinger stresses that the application is opt-in only, and that although the technology will allow mobile carriers to track users’ physical locations down to within a few blocks (using GPS-like systems), guidelines are in place to ensure that their information is kept private.
Will linking objects and locations in our physical environment to on-line networks help to someday purge the public sphere of its marketing mayhem? A profusion of small “triggers” and symbols replacing traditional advertisements could certainly make our Main Streets less audio-visually grotesque. But if the triggers themselves are gateways to brand marketing platforms, anything and everything we see could be imbued with commercial transmissions (similar to how we oblige to watching short ads at the beginning of CNN videos).
Make no mistake, companies will be closely monitoring whether or not we elect to receive these transmissions: Hyperspace will allow marketers to track our clicks in the real world the same way they currently track our links on the Internet. This will forever transform the public sphere. Instead of the old days of navigating through public spaces that contain discrete advertisements, denizens of the Web 3.0 era will live in Web-encoded corporate environments.
The clown’s autopsy will move inside of our heads.
After watching a movie a couple years ago (can’t remember which one, probably Air Bud 2) I was jiving down the sidewalk in rhythm to the Commodores’ Machine Gun (the hip-grinder from Boogie Nights) when I looked up and saw a monolithic face rushing toward me out of the sky. It was a holographic billboard advertisement for the new A&E series Paranormal State. When I got home I looked it up and read about their even more audacious advertising scheme in New York.
A&E was also promoting their new series by utilizing a technology called “audio spotlighting”. In NYC, on Prince Street, as people walked by a billboard for the show, a voice in their heads whispered, “It’s not your imagination. Who is that? Who’s there?”
Traditionally used by libraries and museums, audio spotlighting transmits beams of sound onto specific targets the same way a light bulb projects rays of light. While it seems like the voice is speaking directly in your mind, it is actually just reverberating outside your skull. Holosonics President and founder Joe Pompei says the technology will help cut down on excessive noise in crowded city areas like Time Square. The technology has attracted criticism from groups like the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (cognitiveliberty.org), who charge the technology violates the individual’s right “to have decision-making authority over matters affecting his or her mind.”
I spoke with Pompei about whether his audio spotlighting technology, when used in marketing campaigns, qualifies as subliminal advertising. He dismissed this as propaganda disseminated by his detractors, or the “tin-foil hat paranoids”. Anyone who actually understands the technology, he says, knows there is nothing malicious going on. The debate is likely just the opening salvo for a new civil rights battle over mental privacy. The CCLE also points out “neuro-marketing” organizations like the BrightHouse Institute in Atlanta as violating mental privacy. BrightHouse uses MRI scanning to decode patterns in people’s thought processes and devise custom-tailored advertising schemes.
If traditional advertisements compete through noise and glare to get our attention, will replacing them with quieter, more surreptitious advertisements (such as ones beamed into our heads) make the public sphere less of a madhouse? Or are we simply making it easier for marketers to reach us?
What’s to stop a company or government agency from shining anon your front lawn, or your bedroom window, or the driver’s side door of your car?
Instead of having to trash those annoying flyers on your windshield in the morning you may find yourself humming loudly to drown out the voices in your head.