I have been asked to look a hundred years out and predict the future of advertising. I was asked to do this because I have been tagged with the label of futurist. The assignment has been more daunting than I expected.
Surely, a forecaster could have foreseen the evolution of radio waves into an entertainment medium and, perhaps, could have predicted TV. But I find it hard to believe that anyone would have predicted the growth of a global, mediated consumer society that would be pushing $25 trillion with advertising at the core of the intersection of media and consumers.
The problem of forecasting the future is that successful advertising leads not just to consumption but to the invention of whole systems that arise to sustain consumption. And it is in this area that the future proves particularly obscure. If we look to the present, we see the same kind of entrepreneurial zeal of 100 years ago, but now its focus is electronic and biological.
In the midst of the dissemination of computer technology, we have seen the evolution of a whole new system of predominately interpersonal communication called the Internet. Advertisers seek to exploit the eyeballs within this environment but, for those of us who advertise through the environment, it feels different than TV or radio or magazines.
The users demand a new system of rules. They don't want to be entertained as much as to be informed. They don't want product advertising as much as they want advertising in the context of an elaborated, enriched experience. And Web-sters aren't very far from the day when they will call Mercedes and ask for a direct subsidy for their private Web site in exchange for purchase loyalty. So, in forecasting the next 100 years, I have tried to look at how new ideas create systems of human behavior and advertising opportunity.
The first system of human behavior within which advertising will play a critical role is the privatization (at the most private possible level) of distributed communication. Advertising will be challenged to find ways to subsidize the broadcast of my as-yet-unborn grandson's soccer game to the home of his grandparents.
In the next hundred years, we will see the deconstruction of the concept of collective, so-called mass society. We will see the growth of small, highly ethnocentric "tribal" societies. These small communities will be linked electronically on a more or less global basis. Geography will play little part in the depths of their relationships, but a collective interest in brands and products will mark their sense of tribe.
I have been working on the technological side of the creation of Internet communities and it is obvious now that we will soon be able to have two-way multimedia (or as Martha Stewart is calling it, omnimedia) links between members of these communities. They will be highly cohesive in the sense that, while they participate in society, their perspectives will be focused by a shared preference for information and experience associated with the rituals of their community.
The power of electronics will grow in its capacity to allow an individual to determine what the nature of his or her social specialty will be. A person will know what they choose to know, and will not know what they choose not to know. It is an irony that as the information available to the average desktop grows (and over the next 10 years that availability will increase by more than 100,000 times), choices will be more refined, personally predictable, secular and idiosyncratic.
If demassification is the product of the evolution of electronics, what of advertising? We will see smaller audiences, automated creativity, participatory advertising and reception with the paid permission of the receiver. We have already seen the emergence of the targeted agency, and some of those are doing quite well. What we have yet to see is the creation of imagery whose literate content can be adjusted to the specific expectations of tribal members.
As the number of older people grows, we can expect another kind of systematic shift in the way advertising interacts with social change. We can anticipate a new fault line in society: It will arise as conflict over the massive assets of older people and the desire of younger people to command those assets. The lion's share of the world's wealth will be owned by people with very low ambition to spend it. What a scenario for antagonism; what an opportunity for communication.
The evolution of investment from control by institution to control by individual has taken place over the past 20 years at an astonishing pace. I remember a study we did only 10 years ago in which we told major institutional investment analysts that by the end of the century most assets would be controlled and purchased by individuals. So loudly did they laugh that it took us 14 months to collect the bill.
What, then, will "they" say if 4% or 5% of the population over the age of 120 controlled 50% to 60% of the assets? I think they would say a great deal of time and money is going to be invested in getting the aging to spend it.
Another issue facing the global future is the localization problem -- local packaging, adaptation to local electric currents and plug forms and the like. The cost to the consumer of these variations has been justified by the protection localization has offered manufacturers for jobs and income. Similarly, localizing the language of packaging and communications is defended for its recognition of cultural values.
But the strong ethnocentric languages are in decline. As the importance of government and nationalism declines in the face of privatization, bio-engineering and the physical concentration of older people and their assets, I believe we will see the simplification of the language of commerce even as the language of ordinary speech is enriched by the interweaving of the remaining major languages. The advertiser of 100 years from now will share a common global grammar -- an amalgam of useful words from every language, with English grammar dominant. But our capacity to communicate to a specific microsegment will depend on our ability to know the arcane "Erin go bragh" phrases that reflect deeply held historic language remnants that give tribalism its meaning.
And there are things that will be invented that are beyond imagination. Will physics succeed in finding a new class of stable elements beyond atomic weight 130; elements, theoretically at least, of astonishing hardness and physical formidability? Will we be able to clone ourselves and inject our life experience into our own little Mini Me's? Will we be able to simulate the physical structure of the art and artifice in our houses so that we can dial our decor? Will we be able to experience life outside our planet?
Any one of these ideas, if realized, changes the context of
human experience and calls for communication, education and promotion.
So I am bullish on advertising in the next century. Whatever is invented, we can be sure there will be a need for enriched communication. We will still need to galvanize product interest. And human beings will still seek hope, happiness, relief from hunger, self-assurance, empathy and membership.
The desire to acquire will remain strong. A hundred years from now, the world's production of goods and services will have passed $100 trillion. I suspect the world will gladly pay our industry $3 trillion in the year 2099 to create brands, educate consumers, build product meaning and inspire enthusiasm for the things people buy.
No matter the social structure within which we operate, no matter the political or moral reluctance to accept the material ambitions of human beings, 100 years from now advertising will remain at the core of the process by which human beings discover who they are through what they own.
Mr. Taylor is chief branding consultant for Iomega Corp., brand strategist for advertising giant Euro RSCG and former head of global marketing for Gateway 2000. He is co-author of "The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes