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Extinction, Innovation and the Sad Future of Iceberg Lettuce

A Chat With a Futurist Reveals Trends That Will Affect the World of Marketing

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Usually when you think about the future, you imagine all the cool new stuff we'll be using (or at least trying to use, before we go hunting for a low-tech, highly efficient sledgehammer). But as futurist Richard Watson likes to point out: The future is also about things becoming extinct.

Things such as paternity disputes (already on their way out) and keys (ditto) and Russian democracy (feel free to argue the point) and, alas, careers (you know it's true).

His book, "Future Files: The Five Trends That Will Shape the Next 50 Years," is filled with little jolts like that: things you recognize on the horizon, either rising up or sinking down. Over a breakfast of omelets and coffee (not protein pills and memory-enhancing water -- yet), the Australian prognosticator thought hard about the trends that will affect the world of marketing. Starting with:

  • Static ads. These are going extinct. Ads that don't move will eventually seem as old-fashioned as ads in black and white. "Any flat surface has the potential to be a screen," Watson says. "There are restaurants in Tokyo where the menus are in the table and you order by touch screen." He predicts short animations on cereal boxes soon, too.
  • Physical design will become "infinitely more important" -- for a couple of reasons. First: It's hard to get anyone's attention with an ad, so the product has to do the attention grabbing. Think: iPod. "You could remove all the advertising and you'd barely harm the brand," Watson notes. Another reason for the ascendency of product design: the aging population. If seniors can't open it, hold it, press it or use it, your product will miss a huge market.
  • Lettuce. It's not that all lettuce is on its way out, but hydroponically grown lettuce may be, because it takes a lot of water and energy to grow, but delivers almost no nutritional value. That puts it at the top of what Watson predicts will become a list of "socially unacceptable foods" -- foods that seem selfish. Bottled water is already headed in that direction and could soon find itself as uncool as McMansions and Hummers. And speaking of Hummers ...
  • Car profiling. Fast feeders with drive-through windows -- which, I guess, is almost all of them -- may start employing technology that recognizes the make and model of the car driving up and alerts employees (or machines) to begin preparing food accordingly. After all, says Watson, the inhabitants of a late-'90s Hummer and 2008 Volvo usually order predictably different foods. Profile 'em and you could save a few seconds.
  • Dropping out. Everything is speeding up so much, we will pay for a chance to decompress. We've already seen quiet cars on commuter trains. Airplanes will have quiet sections, too, if they (God forbid!) start allowing cellphones. Couples will book vacations at unplugged resorts so they have no choice but to relate. And meantime, a village in England is petitioning to take itself off of GPS. It does not want traffic coming through town. Dropping out of the tech world may become the ultimate luxury.
  • Everyone is watching. Despite the dropouts, infinite connectability is on its way. You will know where your children are, thanks to GPS devices in their backpacks (already available). You will know what's in your refrigerator, thanks to RFID chips. And the marketing world will know where you are, thanks to your electronic trail. So if you text your friend, "I'm hungry," your cellphone service will sell that info to McDonald's, which will send your phone a 50-cent coupon for the nearest Golden Arches.
  • If you'd like to hear more about the future of food, let me know and I'll write about that next. Meantime, Happy New Year -- and new everything else!

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