See 1967 Film in Which an Ad Man Foresaw Digital-Media Boom

Now 91-Year-Old Star of 4A's Video, James Nelson, Surprised His Predictions Panned Out

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The annual conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies is upon us, running from Sunday to Wednesday in New Orleans. The agenda is jam-packed with talk about digital and mobile, but you can be sure there won't be any futurecasting as astute as one bit of filmed entertainment from 4A's confabs past.

"2017, Revisited" is a strangely prescient little film made by James C. Nelson Jr. back in 1967 to celebrate the 4A's 50th anniversary. Mr. Nelson, then of San Francisco shop Hoefer, Dieterich & Brown, plays the role of U.S. Secretary of Advertising in the year 2095 looking back at an imagined 2017, the 100th anniversary of the 4A's.

Among the very tongue-in-cheek predictions made by Mr. Nelson, who also wrote, directed and produced the script are:

  • a five-day national holiday celebrating the 4A's 100th anniversary

  • compulsory advertising education beginning in the fourth grade

  • a total marketing economy in which all production was outsourced to Japan and which is dominated by only two companies, General Amalgamated and Chicken Delight Industries

  • Those are fun, as is the peppering of sci-fi language throughout, but the eerily spot-on moment you have to see is Mr. Nelson's vision of a magazine whose content is wholly determined by the age, gender and interests of its reader and laser-beamed right to the home. The ads, too, are perfectly targeted.

    "Lifetime, the Magazine for You" is laser-beamed to a device that prints out the content from under the kitchen sink, next to the garbage disposal. Each copy is unique and the subscription is noncancelable. Says Mr. Nelson in the film, "Only the ads that could reasonably appeal to the subscriber are included in his issue and if an advertiser wanted to reach only 28-year-old mothers of three children, boy-girl-boy, that was who they reached ... there was 100% coverage and no waste circulation and no matter how the subscriber felt about it, noncancelable."

    It's easy to see apps like Flipboard and concepts like the filter bubble, if not the whole digital-publishing world, bent on serving up content and ads that are less about the independent vision of an editorial team and more about divining what the reader will actually click on. So in this fun and tossed-off little clip, Mr. Nelson predicted the personalized, data-driven, on-demand future of digital media we're dealing with today, even if he was, sadly, wrong about the lasers.

    "It was just a thought," said Mr. Nelson, when we asked the 91-year-old for his memories of the film. "I didn't think anyone would actually do it."

    As he recalls it, the 4A's asked a handful of agencies for films to show at the annual conference in 1967, which back in those days took place at West Virginia's Greenbrier, the kind of stodgy resort the 4A's traded for more, um, real locations like New Orleans this year and Austin, Texas, and San Francisco recently. The film had to be a low-cost affair since it was paid for by the agency and it was shot at a studio in San Francisco. "It wasn't all that hard and it was fun kidding around on the future of advertising," he said. Mr. Nelson wasn't able to attend the 4A's conference where the film was shown, but he got positive feedback from the agency's chairman, who was there.

    A few of his ideas came from stuff that was going on in the business world at the time at the time. A very acquisitive Interpublic and McCann Erickson was referenced as "Interplanetary," the Goliath that "bought the last remaining advertising agency and merged with the U.S. government." Japan was seen as the sole location of production, a role that might be filled by China today. The idea for the personalized "Lifetime" magazine came out of concerns at the time over circulation waste, Mr. Nelson said, especially in newspapers. "You accepted waste on TV because of the impact of TV."

    Mr. Nelson has been out of the ad game for more than 30 years. He retired in 1980 when his agency, Hoefer, Dieterich & Brown, was sold to Apple ad shop Chiat/Day (which is now part of TBWA Worldwide). He was an editor at Business Week for a few years. And since the 1950s, he's written several nonfiction books, but it wasn't until 2011, as he approached his ninth decade, that he published his first novel, "On the Volcano."

    These days, Mr. Nelson doesn't spend too much time keeping up with the ad business, though he does find AMC's "Mad Men" "engrossing," even if the whiskey-tinted re-creation doesn't resonate with his own experience. "The booze in every executive office -- that didn't occur in San Francisco, as far as I know. A couple people had bottles, but they kept them in the bottom of their desk."

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