Part of the Problem

I have been traveling for work a lot lately and I feel as though, passing through airports, train stations, and a wide variety of other public spaces, there are fewer and fewer unbranded places left. We are quickly reaching a state of hyper commercialism where every bat of the eye is a transaction at once physical, cultural, and economic. In a world filled with ads we are unwitting (and often unwilling) consumers, traded and bargained for by ad execs and sales reps betting we’ll pass through their branded space.

Already fed up with TVs blaring from every lobby corner and storefront window, computer screens embedded in walls and kiosks, and old fashioned billboards and banners everywhere, I was dismayed recently when I turned the corner in my local airport and saw enormous ads being projected onto a formerly clean white wall. However, once I walked by I realized that these projections were much worse than just big ads.

The ads were for Travelers Insurance, and consisted of huge red umbrellas, made up of hundreds of little red umbrellas (the red umbrella is the company logo). As groups of people walked by the images the umbrella’s scattered to the edges of the projection around people’s silhouettes, ricocheting off the edges and bouncing back into shape with a fluid elasticity. Once they realized what was going on, many people stopped and waved their arms scattering the little red umbrellas and watching them regroup. Others watched as kids jumped up and down reaching for the little logos zipping across the wall.

The ads worked. People stopped and looked. And not only did they stop, they participated. In a time when everything is about interactivity, when people are as much creators of media as they are consumers of it, it is only natural that ads become another form of participation. It is the marketization of movement, the branding of being.

The company behind the ads is Monster Media and they specialize in these sorts of interactive ads, some in windows, some on screens, and some projected on floors or walls. On their home page you can see some video of other ad installations they have created – including the Travelers umbrellas. Their site touts that, “Overall demos had a 41.3% unaided recall rate” and that “50% surveyed said they remembered seeing the advertisement on a previous visit.” It’s true, the ads are surprising and novel, but at what cost?

What happens when we literally cannot block out advertising – when it forces itself upon us? These interactive ads — projected in such a way that makes us have to walk through them — draft us into participating, forcing us to interact with their product, branding not just our space, and our bodies, but even the motion of our bodies moving through the space. Traditionally, ads have been inserted into the products and places we’re engage in. For the most part, we could – without too much trouble – choose to ignore or avoid those ads. These new interactive ads shift from being passive messages to active actors, inserting themselves into your mental space.

Of course, the president of Monster Media sees it a bit differently. He sees his product as providing a service to consumers, letting them interact with a product, test it out, get a feel for the brand in a more immersive way. He says “Consumers now have the ability to engage with advertising like never before, literally bringing static ads to life and creating memorable and personal experiences.” This is ad heaven. The ability to give each consumer an unique and personalized experience.

What he doesn’t say is that as his enormous projected ads fill more of our public spaces, these “memorable and personal experiences” are created by interrupting other personal experiences. It is not, as Monster Media claims, that their ads give consumers the ability to engage, it is that they take away one’s choice not to.

Now, when I walk through that corridor in the airport I drift as far as possible to one side. Like a spy slipping past security cameras, I try to sneak by the projectors without disturbing the little red umbrellas. It is my way of opting out, of reclaiming my choice not to engage. But in the end, by focusing so intently on trying not to be part of the ad, I am in effect focusing on the ad itself and thus still a participant, still branded, still part of the problem.


  1. Ben Byrne says:

    Nice take on this thing. These were present at BDL well before we left town — I’ve played with them several times — and every time we encountered them I thought to myself, “this technology is really cool, what a pity it’s being used as commercial advertising and not an exhibit in (or at least a promotion for) a science museum or something more educational and relevant.”

    Have you read Naomi Klein’s now-ancient book No Logo? It’s the book that helped me turn the corner from critic to (at least somewhat of an) activist, and deals heavily with the theme you raise. Herb Schiller’s Culture Inc. also addresses it well.

  2. Josh says:

    I love Facebook and all, because these blog posts automatically get posted over there, but then some people comment on Facebook and some people comment here, and it bisects the conversation… So here are some of the comments from Facebook (identities hidden to protect the authors unless they want to fess up)

    From D
    “I got distracted from the kindle post by this one… really nicely done here. The ubiquitous TV phenomenon really bothers me. Now they are in the back of every cab. As if we need more screens in the world! but that should segueway me back to the kindle post… first, let me commend you on this piece of writing/thinking. Although I may take … Read Moreissue with the idea that your intent focus on avoidance makes you part of the problem. It’s an elegant turn for the essay, but is it really true? Is adamant refusal some form of cooperation or complicity? If so, we have no quarter left.”

    My response:
    I hear you about refusal, and I think in most cases you are right. As with TV. If I don’t watch TV, I remove myself from that economic/cultural interaction. I avoid, I refuse, I win. But in the case of an ad like this – if an ads sole purpose it to make you pay attention to it – to notice it – then when you have to pay attention to it to avoid it, the ad works. You notice it, you interact, by refusing it you have acknowledged it, and being acknowledged is its most basic goal.

  3. Josh says:

    From L:
    “This reminds me of teaching Gladwell’s “Science of Shopping” in College Writing, and reading or hearing many a response of, “But it’s all about helping consumers. They are just giving us what we want.” What’s interesting about this ad and its inhabiting our space is that the ad-experience, in some way, concretizes that logic, allows us to … Read Moreliterally enact it: the umbrellas react to me! The store window follows my instructions! I am in control! I wonder if the immersion in the tactile experience, entering this “space,” closes up space for reflection. . . or could open up space because of the ways it brings in the body. I start to dance with the umbrellas and then I wonder, “WTF am I doing?” because of the motions of my body in a public space. Maybe that’s idealistic.”

    My Response:
    Thanks & great points. It is probably not an either/or case in terms of closing or opening space for reflection. That said, as I have been exploring the world of kids toys and kids clothing, I am shocked at how increasingly our children’s (and our own) fun is being… Read More branded. These brands are being embodied like the advertisements described above. I like your optimism and wonder if there are ways to “hack” the ad-experience and draw attention to people’s participation (besides, say writing a blog post about it)… Can we help interrupt the ad-experience (without coming off as crazed activists… 😉 )?

    L’s Response:
    “DeLuca & Peeples! I’m wondering about it, though, because of the fact that this ad experience happens in public space. A lot of the branding and marketing experience is so individualized: I see the ad, think about it, buy product (most of this happening subconsciously). But when a group of people are dancing in umbrellas…you have the potential… Read More for awareness of those other people, of the fact that you constitute an audience…created by whom? For what purpose? [It’s interesting that you mention this, because just the other day, someone just mentioned the film “Consuming Kids” in a class I’m taking.]”

  4. Josh says:

    nteresting – just stumbled on this NYT piece:

    “IN a world with grocery store television screens, digitally delivered movie libraries and cellphone video clips, the average American is exposed to 61 minutes of TV ads and promotions a day.

    Some people may think that amount seems excessive. But “people don’t seem to be getting up and running away,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting.

    In fact, adults are exposed to screens — TVs, cellphones, even G.P.S. devices — for about 8.5 hours on any given day, according to a study released by the Council for Research Excellence on Thursday. TV remains the dominant medium for media consumption and advertising, the study found.”

    More here:

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