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When marketing meets science fiction
Christopher Null
Christopher Null
4 min read

When marketing meets science fiction

Sometimes you need to think differently to get an edge, which is why some marketers have pursued outlandish tech concepts. Here are a few of them.

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Hey, remember when Microsoft set a poorly trained AI named Tay loose on Twitter, only for it to begin spewing racist and sexist vitriol in less than a day? That was just one of the many strange intersections of technology and marketing that made it to the market – albeit briefly. Turns out history is crawling with even bolder, crazier examples of brands that thought technology and marketing sounded like a match made in robot heaven.

Concepts like Tay seem quaint in comparison to some more aggressive MarTech ideas. Here's a look at four of them. While the ideas may sound outlandish, most of them have actually come to fruition in one form or another. 

But did you watch your hands?

But did you wash your hands?

Smart speaker vendors like Amazon and Google swear up and down that they're only listening when they're being asked to. Recordings are not archived for eternity, they say, and spoken commands are separate from marketing activities. Perhaps, but recent patent applications foretell a dystopian future that ties information picked up by smart sensors to aggressive forms of marketing.

These patents include technology that can listen for sentiment in a speaker's language and use it to target advertising on other media. They also promise the ability to monitor household behaviors detectable via audio (whether or not you use the special wake word first), including when people eat meals or even flush the toilet.

These devices can learn who's coming and going from the house, when they go to bed, and when they awaken – not to mention what everyone's talking about and what their interests are. A Google patent even aims to tie together information from its Nest surveillance camera – such as spotting a book on a nightstand, a basketball in a child's hands, or a logo on a t-shirt – with the owner's web search history to deliver highly targeted advertisements.

For its part, Google – which now has a privacy policy that is 32 pages long – says that it merely "uses information you permit it to access."

...recent patent applications foretell a dystopian future that ties information picked up by smart sensors to aggressive forms of marketing.

In modern America, the billboard sees you

Billboard technology has long been considered the ultimate one-way marketing tool, with no way of knowing who or even how many people see the ad in a given day, week, or month. In 2016, Clear Channel got the idea to change that. It wanted to monitor mobile phone signals to determine whether consumers who pass by a billboard ("out of home advertising," in industry parlance) take action afterward. This includes making a purchase or talking about the advertised brand on social media.

The good news is that the Clear Channel Outdoor RADAR Suite purportedly doesn't track drivers individually. Instead, it uses "anonymous, aggregated mobile location data ... to more effectively plan, amplify, and measure the impact of out of home advertising." The bad news? The system isn't a hypothetical concept. It's fully up and running, making it clear that consumers are being monitored in more places than ever – including areas previously felt to be off limits.

If you can dream it, we can sell it

If you can dream it, we can sell it

Subliminal messaging has been a thing since at least 1957, when marketer James Vicary inserted single frames lasting 1/24th of a second into motion pictures urging audiences to "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola." The idea is that you wouldn't consciously see the message, but your brain would register it and urge you to subconsciously obey the instructions.

While subliminal stimuli have been shown to indeed have a small effect on consumers, in 2021, a cadre of academic researchers took the basics of the concept and ratcheted it up – attempting to inject messages directly into the brain of a sleeping individual via a system called Dormio. The gizmo is described as "an interactive social robot accompanied with a custom sleep stage tracking system and auditory biofeedback," which can influence and extract information from "hypnagogic microdreams" for the first time.

Naturally, marketers quickly took notice, with Molson Coors creating a Super Bowl 2021 ad featuring trippy imagery, specifically designed to promote dreams about beer. It's unclear if Molson Coors ever measured the results of the experimental ad in a scientifically meaningful way, but it's worth noting that the company's sales were up 14.2% in the year that followed.

Despite heavy backlash against the concept being used for commercial purposes, one shocking study claims that 77% of marketers are planning to deploy the technology in the field over the next three years.

So how does that make you feel?

Major breakthroughs in brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are giving amputees the ability to control prosthetic limbs, granting paralyzed individuals the ability to communicate, and returning eyesight to the blind. Naturally for marketers, this type of technology also sounds like a great way to help them sell you something.

The idea is that, with a BCI device, your brain can connect directly to your phone or computer, allowing you to interact with the web, apps, and social media by simply thinking about it instead of having to type or swipe on a screen.

For marketers, however, this represents a two-way street. If you happen to think about French fries, it's the perfect time for McDonald's to push a coupon your way, perhaps delivered straight into your eyes via a pair of augmented reality smart glasses. BCIs could even let you order those fries and pay for them without ever having to fish your phone or a credit card out of your pocket.

Brands are actively working on concepts along these lines, though BCI products are currently proving more useful for consumer research and marketing studies than delivering advertisements.

For now, anyway.

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