How advertising will get way more personal—and then vanish completely
February 12, 2020
Today, less than two decades after the arrival of the internet, Google and Facebook together command more advertising dollars than all print media on the planet.
Fueled by open source e-commerce platforms, mobile devices, and advances in online payment infrastructure, social media marketing has replaced virtually the entire traditional advertising industry. That took fewer than fifteen years.
And the numbers are huge. In 2018, the global advertising industry surpassed $550 billion, driving Google’s valuation north of $700 billion and Facebook’s above $500 billion. All this value is fueled by our searches: our likes and dislikes, what we desire, who our friends are, and what we (and they) are clicking on these days.
But with a blitzkrieg of technologies converging on the industry, advertising will continue to change. First, it’s likely to get a little more invasive and a lot more personal. Yet this won’t last. Not long after, the entire social media marketing market will vanish. How long will that take? We give it 10 to 12 years.
Let’s dive in.
Advertising in Our Virtually Enhanced World
Because of the convergence of high-bandwidth 5G connectivity, augmented reality eyewear, our emerging trillion-sensor economy, and powerful AI, we have gained the ability to superimpose digital information atop physical environments—freeing advertising from the tyranny of the screen.
Imagine stepping into a future Apple Store. When you approach the iPhone display, a full-sized AR avatar of Steve Jobs materializes to give you a tour of the product’s latest features. Avatar Jobs is a little too much, so with nothing more than a voice command, he’s replaced with floating text—and a list of phone features hovers in the air in front of you. After you’ve made your selection, eschewing the iPhone for a new pair of AR iGlasses, another voice command is all it takes to execute a smart contract.
Next, glasses on, you head over to a friend’s house. While chatting in her kitchen, you gaze at her new cabinets. Sensors in the glasses track eye motion, so your AI knows your focus has been lingering.
Via your search history, it also knows you’ve been considering remodeling your kitchen. Because your smart recommendation preferences are turned on, cabinet prices, design, and color choices fill your field of vision. It’s a new form of advertising: either an extension of frictionless shopping, or a novel type of spam.
The early version of this reality is already here. Known as “visual search,” the feature is currently available from an assortment of companies. For example, a partnership between Snapchat and Amazon allows you to point their app-camera at an object, then get a link showing either the product itself or something similar, available for purchase.
Pinterest, meanwhile, has a multitude of visual search tools, such as Shop the Look, which dots every object in a photo. Like the couch? Click the dot. The site will find you similar products for sale. Or take Lens, their real-time visual search tool. Point the app-camera at a scene and the app will generate links to all the products in that scene.
Google takes this one step further. Released in 2017, their Google Lens app is a general visual search engine. It does more than just identify products for sale; it decodes an entire landscape. You can learn anything you want: the botanical breakdown of the plants in a flowerbed, the breeds of dogs romping through a park, the history of the buildings lining a city street.
And Ikea has taken things the farthest. By using their AR app via smartphone, you can map your living room into a digital version with exact dimensions. Need a new coffee table? Their technology lets you try out different styles and sizes. Your choice triggers a smart payment, and just like that, an Ikea customized coffee table is delivered at your doorstep. Need help assembling it? Their AR app can walk you through it step-by-step.
All this visual search competition has kicked development into overdrive, spiking consumer adoption rates as well. As more people use these systems, more data is fed back to the AI running them. By fall of 2018, this feedback loop had pushed visual searches above a billion queries a month.
Pretty much every global brand is preparing for a world of “point, shoot, and shop.” But it could get even creepier.
You’ve been spotted. You’re just out for a casual stroll through a department store, and their facial recognition system has you in its sights. Your AR glasses light up: “Hi Sarah, great to see you…”
You forgot to change your preferences to “Do Not Disturb.” A microsecond later, the store’s TV monitors continue the assault. Maybe it’s a hologram or the president of the United States calling out your name, “Sarah, just one second. Your pores are a matter of national security. I want to tell you that your genome sequence matches a new line of L’Oréal skincare products.”
When you don’t respond to POTUS, the AI switches tactics. Now it’s Mom. You flinch, involuntarily. Her voice is deeply imprinted on your brain. But you know better, and just keep walking.
Sometimes it’s your favorite movie stars (based on data from your Netflix account), or your favorite sports star (based on internet searches).
Does this sound like a far-off fantasy? Guess again.
The Age of Jarvis and the End of Advertising Itself
From the Mad Men of old to the Madder Men of today, the purpose of advertising hasn’t changed: to sell you stuff. So ads extol benefits: Buy X because it’ll make you Y—sexy, successful, shiny, whatever.
But what happens when you are no longer the one making the buying decisions? That’s when Shopping JARVIS comes to the rescue.
Imagine a future when you simply say: “Hey JARVIS, buy me some toothpaste.” Does JARVIS watch TV? Did he happen to catch those late-night ads filled with bright-white smiles? Of course not.
In a nanosecond, JARVIS considers the molecular formulations of all available options, their cost, the research that supports their teeth-whitening claims, published client-satisfaction reports, and evaluates your genome to determine the flavor formulation most likely to tingle your taste buds. Then it makes a purchase.
Taking it a step further, in the future, you’ll never actually have to order toothpaste. JARVIS will be monitoring your supply of regularly consumed items—from coffee, tea, and almond milk to toothpaste, deodorant, and all the rest—and will order supplies before you realize what needs restocking.
How about purchasing something new? That drone your son wants for his birthday? Just specify functionality. “Hey JARVIS, could you buy me a drone for under $100 that is easy to fly and takes great photos?”
What about fashion decisions? Will we trust our AIs to choose our clothes? Seems unlikely, until you consider that AIs can track eye movement as we window-shop, listen to our daily conversations to understand likes and dislikes, and scan our social feeds to understand our fashion preferences as well as those of our friends. With that level of detail, Fashion JARVIS will do a pretty accurate job of selecting our clothing—no advertising required.
In the next decade, expect advertising to get far more personalized—learning from an explosion of layered data and expanding into new surfaces of our digitally superimposed world.
Next, we’ll be heading toward a future in which AI will take over the majority of our buying decisions, continually surprising us with products and services we didn’t even know we wanted.
Or, if surprise isn’t your thing, just turn that feature off and opt for boring and staid. Either way, it’s a shift that threatens traditional advertisers, while offering considerable benefits to the consumer.