With digital technology taking over our lives, advertising is fast taking ideas that were once the stuff of science fiction and making them a reality


There’s a scene in the classic movie Blade Runner where a giant electronic advertising billboard lights up the skyline of a future Los Angeles. With its bleak dystopian outlook and replicant androids, the film is set in a fictional year 2019 but it may as well have been 2015 – at least, as far as that giant billboard is concerned.

Early last year, the UK city of Birmingham’s planning committee rejected an application fora 3m by 6m digital billboard overlooking the Aston Expressway – precisely because the design looked too futuristic. ‘In the US, anyone with land on the side of the highway sticks a giant sign on it, but that is completely alien to Britain and Europe,’ city counsellor Barry Henley told the local paper. ‘If we allow this, we’ll get one after another and it’ll end up looking like something from Blade Runner.’

However, that ‘alien’ future of advertising isn’t too far away. According to Vicki Myburgh, head of entertain-ment and media at PwC, we’re already seeing the next generation of out-of-home (OOH) advertising, with internet-connected digital screens that vary in size, providing more effective advertising to consumers while giving advertisers the opportunity to stream media and showcase dynamic graphics.

‘OOH advertising is moving with the times and, like other parts of the media such as newspaper and magazine publishing, is transforming into a digital environment,’ she says. ‘It is reasonable to predict that more than a quarter of traditional paper billboards could be converted to digital within the next decade.’

What’s more, it’s not only billboards. Digital technology is already transforming other forms of marketing and advertising, affording greater speed, reach and relevance. Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Mark Singleton, head of sportsbook marketing at betting brand Paddy Power, used a real-life example of how traditional advertising is being influenced by digital.

In March 2014, Newcastle United football manager Alan Pardew headbutted Hull City midfielder David Meyler in an altercation during a game. Within half an hour, Paddy Power responded by booking print ads referring to the incident for the next morning’s papers – offering a cheeky money-back guarantee on bets for Newcastle’s next fixture should one of their players ‘score a header’.

‘To be able to turn around a press ad at half past four in the afternoon and for it to be in the papers the next morning is fantastic,’ said Singleton. ‘It wouldn’t have happened four or five years ago. The rise of digital means you can be incredibly fast.’

Digital, of course, is everywhere now. And that makes it the perfect vehicle for marketers. In a article, Gumtree SA’s head of sales Veruschka Khan says: ‘Digital has become such a pervasive layer in our lives, it’s hard to extract ourselves from it.

The big Infographic

‘Much harder than television advertising (thanks to PVRs), radio (you can change the channel with a flick of your thumb on the steering wheel) and hard-copy flyers (that more often than not go straight to the bottom of the budgie cage).’

Digital is pervasive. Plus it’s personal – far more so than TV, radio and print could ever hope to be. And forget Blade Runner, with its 1982 vision of the future: if there’s a sci-fi movie that ad execs the world over love to reference, it’s the 2002 film Minority Report.

In a scene from the film that has been replayed over and over at advertising conferences worldwide, Tom Cruise’s protagonist walks through a shopping mall and is bombarded with ads that call him by name – implying they’ve been targeted specifically to him. Set in the distant future of 2054, yet again it is today’s reality.

Consider WestJet’s Christmas Miracle campaign. In 2013, the Canadian airline had a virtual Santa Claus appearing on life-sized screens at boarding gates in Toronto and Hamilton, asking real-life passengers what they wanted for Christmas.

Behind the scenes, WestJet employees frantically took notes, and while the passengers were in the air, the WestJet staff bought, wrapped and labelled those very same gifts for them.

When the planes landed in Calgary a few hours later, the gifts emerged on the baggage carousel. The video of that campaign – and really, it’s hard not to become misty-eyed while watching it – went viral, blasting through 13 million views in more than 200 countries in just a few short days.

Or take Samsung’s S4 Stare Down campaign, marking the launch of its Galaxy S4 smartphone in Switzerland in 2013. The device featured eye-tracking technology that detected when someone was looking at it. To launch the campaign, Samsung and Swisscom placed an S4 inside a backlit city light poster (CLP) billboard, and invited people at a busy Zurich station to try win the new phone by staring at it for 60 unbroken minutes.

The catch? ‘During the 60 minutes, players were challenged by a number of distractions around the CLP: from police dogs and renegade motorcyclists to arguing couples and hot-dog sellers on fire – a series of professional actors doing their utmost to create a scene and steal the attention away from the new S4,’ noted Samsung. A YouTube video of the event went viral, ultimately achieving 4.1 million views and reaching one-third of the entire Swiss population, according to Samsung’s website.

Then there’s Coca-Cola’s 2014 Valentine’s Day campaign. Here, the soft drink company ‘hid’ a vending machine behind a digital billboard on a busy pedestrian street. It self-activated only when couples walked by – if a single person passed it, the billboard and vending machine stayed hidden. The couples were then asked their names, after which the ‘invisible vending machine’ produced two cans of Coke, each with the couples’ names printed on them.

The bigPull Quote

‘Users might be highly engaged with a platform but they’re not necessarily visiting the site with the intent to buy’


All three campaigns are examples of highly targeted and personalised advertising – or ‘prank-vertising’, as stunts such as these are known. Their impact and popularity prove what digital marketers have been saying for years: consumers don’t hate ads; they hate irrelevant ads. 

Digital technology – and digital data gathering in particular – is making advertising more personal and more relevant than it’s ever been before. ‘Today it’s possible to tackle the age-old marketing problem of understanding who your consumers are and giving them what they want with a combination of powerful digital marketing technology and good old creative instinct,’ writes Adobe marketing strategist Jamie Brighton in a article.

‘Digital marketing in 2015 will definitely focus on providing content that is relevant, engaging and speaks to the individual. Content will become more important than ever. And content that’s personalised is already enjoying a greater click-through rate and a higher conversion rate.’

It’s no longer enough to simply broadcast your brand message and hoping that it will resound with someone, somewhere. In the age of digital, advertising must – and can – be relevant, authentic and valuable. Just like the ‘Recommended for you’ ads you see every time you log onto Amazon, or those Facebook ads that frame your newsfeed and are based on your profile and browsing habits.

Khan believes the future of online advertising lies in the difference between what she calls ‘traffic versus demographic’.

‘Online advertising is about figures and goals,’ she explains on ‘Impressions. Click-through rates. Unique visits.

‘The beauty of online is that it is meant to be “all about the numbers” – gaining the maximum exposure for your spend – while measuring your return on investment through analytics and reciprocal visits. Yet emotion still factors into buyers’ decisions… To their detriment.’

She recalls the early days of Facebook marketing, where brands scrambled madly to attract masses of followers – only to find that those thousands of ‘Likes’ didn’t necessarily convert into sales.

‘High traffic is valuable,’ she says. ‘However, the intent of a browser’s visit is invaluable. There are essentially two reasons someone visits a website – utility or engagement. Out of the two, engagement is possibly the word that generates the most hype. But in all honesty, users might be highly engaged with a platform like Pinterest or Buzzfeed but they are not necessarily visiting the site with the intent to buy.

‘Many sites are very good at drawing traffic, entertaining readers and, let’s be honest, wasting a little time. Brands that advertise on these sites will definitely get a lot of views by default but will they actually sell anything?’

And that’s where – from an advertising point of view, at least – Blade Runner got it wrong while Minority Report got it right.

The future (and the present) of advertising isn’t in big billboards that scream a brand message to anyone who passes by. Instead, it lies in responding quickly (like Paddy Power), in gathering data on your consumer (like WestJet), in engaging them with your product (like Samsung), and in speaking to them as the individuals they are (like Coca-Cola).

By Will Sinclair
Image: Mr.Xerty ©