I've been watching with both dread and fascination (mostly dread) as advertisers get more clever, more intrusive, and better at what they do. New technology opens up endless potential for creativity, but unfortunately that also goes for the people trying to sell us stuff.
The latest development in ad tech is some really next-level manipulation. The German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf developed train windows that can emit high-frequency vibrations that transmit advertisements straight into a passengers' skulls when they rest their head against the window.
Using bone conduction technology, the "talking window" sends vibrations into the brain, which converts them into sound. No one else can hear the ad playing in your mind.
Bone conduction technology is nothing new, though this is by far the creepiest application of it yet. Up until recently it been reserved for hearing aids and military special ops. It's been steadily making its way into the commercial realm, via gadgets like Google Glass and some high-tech headphones, and now is opening up a whole new information medium.
Generally, the eardrum converts sound waves in the air to vibrations and sends them to the inner ear, at which point we “hear” them. With bone conduction technology, sound waves get to the inner ear through direct vibration of the bones in the head, skipping the whole eardrum part.
It's how we hear our own voice—only now that voice in our head could be telling us to "purchase 300 channels for just $14.50 a month!" In a sense, it's literally mind control. How is this ethical?
Well, there's not a lot advertisers won't try in order to get in our heads. Neuromarketing is a whole field devoted to scanning people’s brains and researching our subconscious thoughts in order to create more effective ads. Salespeople, say in retail stores or car dealerships, use “mind control scripts” to close a deal, specific words or social cues that park the decision to buy. Stores will also use mind-altering smells and visual triggers that compel people to impulse spend.
On the internet, companies are racing to answer the million-dollar question of online advertising, how to stop people from ignoring the ads. We’ve all seen some of the ways they’re trying: the pre-roll ads we’re forced to sit through before popular YouTube videos; the terrible pop-ups that autoplay as soon as a new tab is opened. This past spring, the language tech company Nuance introduced a new ad format that allows users to have an actual conversation with mobile ads, to force engagement.
The difference between these approaches and BBDO Düsseldorf’s talking train windows is that the former are meant to incentive users to engage with an ad, not force a sneak ad attack while they try to nap. What’s next, a gadget that holds your eyelids open and your head still during commercials?