The Future of Advertising

When I got up this morning and flipped on the kitchen light switch, a panel on the front of my refrigerator flashed pictures of Special K and Cheerios cereals. Which would I prefer for breakfast? While I mulled this over, my iPhone lit up, suggesting local events for after-work entertainment. Having shopped the fridge, I wandered back to my closet, where a hologram of a pony appeared, followed by the image of a snapping alligator. Time to choose between a Ralph Lauren blouse or a Lacoste tee.

That’s a slight exaggeration (the panel on the front of my refrigerator is a post-it note), but some days it feels as if advertising permeates every aspect of our lives. In many ways, it does. While the influence of newspapers wanes, advertisers are searching out ever more creative options for reaching customers, wherever we are, and whatever we are doing.

The first time I noticed this phenomenon, I was shopping in an outlet mall in rural Virginia, an unassuming spot for the commencement of a marketing revolution. Strolling past a pizza ad, I stared as the sign began chatting, extolling the virtues of the local Italian restaurant. Outfitted with motion-sensors and a tinny speaker, the ad was creative, if a bit low-tech: it combined hardware normally found in a porch light with a gravely voice as appealing as a Speak & Spell. But since I actually did want a piece of pizza, the effect was eerily like the movie Minority Report. In that old Tom Cruise thriller, sophisticated ads identified passersby and then pitched products based on their profiles. You know, just like Facebook.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has received plenty of flack for his casual attitude toward personal privacy (and advertising that, oddly, seems to compliment whatever interests users list on their pages), but he’s hardly alone. Online, thousands of web bots and trackers gather our private data for targeted advertising, though the results are sometimes a bit unexpected. I once sent an email recounting a scary story about dangerous dogs, and a friend reported back that the email was accompanied by ads for dog trainers. Right idea, sort of.

If our presence online is increasingly feeling like a tear sheet from the Sunday paper, we should pull ourselves away from the computer screen and take a hard look in the mirror. Wardrobes these days are fabric billboards. Our jeans have leather name patches, our shoes have logo-imprinted soles, and our buttons have carefully etched designer names so tiny that attempting to read them can provoke a sexual harassment suit. Gone are the days when companies paid big bucks to paint “See Rock City” or “Burma Shave” on farmers’ barns. Nowadays, we are the ones who pay bale-sized amounts for the privilege of wearing branded togs.

No one is twisting our designer-clad arms to do so. American consumers are eager for identity, even if that identity is no greater than the sum of our logos. Our public and personal lives have become a complex equation of brands and products, an amalgamation of symbols that reflect our social status, income level, and geographical location. In Colorado, Polartec + Reefs + Kashi snack bars equal cool. In New York, where such get up would see you ushered into the nearest manhole, Jason Wu + Manolo Blahniks + Pelligrino is often the correct equation.

Identity dressing is not an entirely new idea; for centuries, rulers and leaders have used the trappings of grandeur to separate themselves from the ill-clad masses. In ancient China, only the emperor was permitted to wear imperial yellow; in 16th Century England, sumptuary laws prevented commoners from wearing certain fabrics and colors. But the crucial figure was always the wearer; the designer was merely a lower-class laborer skilled with thread.

Nowadays, the modern equivalent of royalty advertises for the cloth makers. French first lady Carla Bruni carries bags with Dior’s name spelled in silver charms; New York socialites are on the payroll of major fashion houses as public muses, boosting brands with every red carpet appearance. Singer Lady Gaga croons, “You are who you wear, it’s true,” while Britney Spears adorns her dashboard with Louis Vuitton patterned leather.

We Americans have long been passionate about our purchases, but we now blur the line between owning and being (just try asking your friends whether they’re a Mac or a PC). With the new identity shopping, the monologue form of advertising has ended; ads are now a conversation between the company and the acquirer. Gone are the days when we purchased items simply because they were appealing, useful, or well-made.

Will advertising continue to grow ever more invasive? Thus far, consumers have welcomed it with open arms. Logos have become cultural shorthand for who we are and where we belong, and we shop as if our possessions are projections of our true selves (or at least our true bank statements). Lady Gaga may be right. Perhaps we have become merely who we wear—and what we buy.