What will interactive multimedia mean for creatives in traditional advertising shops? A new language and a new mindset. Maybe a new set of job skills. For the lucky ones, a lot more work than they can handle, and maybe a new job description. To prepare for your transformation from writer to nerd, it will be helpful to learn some buzzwords. Soon you'll be sitting in meetings where earnest people are slinging phrases such as interaction design, flat interface, menu hell, affordances, bandwidth and datacloud. My advice: become part of the datacloud.
To be successful in this new industry, the message is clear: Mutate or die. Sling some buzzwords of your own. When the going gets technical, my favorite tactic is to trash the technology and celebrate the primacy of the big idea. Usually this gambit goes something like this: "Look, technology won't get people to buy into this; ideas are going to be what drives this medium forward. I'm not going to sit around and become a pixel slave!" Then, as fast as you possibly can, go out and hire a production shop in San Francisco and turn them into pixel slaves. More on this later.
Now, about that new mindset. The impact of interactivity on the philosophy of advertising will be huge. Traditional advertising is intrusive. It interrupts what people read, watch or listen to. And, frankly, this intrusion is not welcomed by most people. This may be why advertising professionals are ranked 96th out of the 100 most esteemed professions, right in front of lawyers, congressmen and members of the McLaughlin Group. Like the little girl watching the tide rise around her in the MCI commercial says, digital interactivity implies several things: multiplicity, manipulation, immediate access and choice. Chief among them is choice; viewers will be able to choose what they watch. And, conversely, they will be able to choose what they wish to avoid.
Now, who among them will choose to view an advertisement? Let me put it a kinder, gentler way. What kinds of advertising will people choose to watch? I'd suggest advertising that is either so funny, so entertaining or so otherwise engaging that it can compete with anything else out there. Imagine watching Shaquille O'Neal give you a 30-minute clinic on how to perform a 360 slam dunk. Oh, and by the way, did you notice he happened to be wearing Reeboks? That kind of "advertising" will most likely get watched, maybe even downloaded, saved and replayed. People will also choose to watch advertising that provides them with truly useful information, and I don't mean info like a rundown of features on the new Bonneville. To be useful, information will have to be placed in context. A database will do nicely, allowing a viewer to compare the new Pontiac's engine, mileage and trunk space against competitive models.
A spreadsheet to help calculate monthly payments would be nice, too.
This is the kind of advertising that doesn't get watched, it gets used. Would you willingly invite an insurance salesman into your home? Maybe if it was on fire. But you may well download an "advertisement" from an insurance company that lets you plug in your own numbers to a calculator, then run what-if scenarios on an annuity you were considering buying. Chances are you'll engage with this product long enough to absorb the information you need along with the client's marketing message. Some interactive services will provide such a seamless marriage between interaction and product that it will be impossible to tell where the advertisement ends and the product begins.
Imagine clicking the Domino's pizza logo on your smart TV. Up pops a pizza. Click on Large, then design your own pizza by dragging and dropping icons for pepperoni, mushrooms, and sausage onto your pie. Click on Order and your request is sent to the nearest Domino's. Since you've already entered your name, address and credit card number into your TV when you set it up, in less than 30 minutes your pizza will be delivered, and your credit card has been billed. Why do you think they call it smart TV?
Of course, there are other, brute-force solutions to the conundrum of getting people to willingly watch advertising. These include outright bribery, branding and coercion. As digital technologies converge, your TV is either going to get a lot smarter, or your computer will get significantly dumber. What you'll end up with is a machine that combines computational horsepower, with multimedia delivery like a TV and stereo, linked to a phone line and a printer. Oh, and by the way, that 500 channel stuff? Forget about it. Think about your phone. How many channels does it have? That's the kind of access that will become available in the next five to seven years.
Let's get back to that matter at hand: bribery. The equation here is simple: Watch an ad, print a coupon. Advertisers will reward viewers with a blizzard of coupons. Branding is equally simple: slap a sponsor's logo on the download movie of the week, and that's advertising, too. Coercion takes the form of offering something for free, but first you must watch the commercial. Imagine wanting to watch Whoopi Goldberg's "Sister Act XIII," but first, this message from the Catholic Church. It's a disquieting thought.
Now, before you rush right out to matriculate at Microsoft U., remember that, unlike the rebuilding of the Santa Monica freeway, this information highway will be slow in coming. The computational firepower it takes to drive some of the above techniques requires a gig hard drive, 256 megabytes of RAM, and a Silicon Graphics workstation loaded with a few thousand dollars worth of software. It's like having a Formula One race car parked in your garage. However, given enough time, the impact of Moore's Law (which stipulates that every 18 months the capacity of a silicon chip doubles) will drive the price down and the technology into the home.
And believe me, you don't want to be the poor schmo grinding out the copy for these interactive multimedia scripts. You may want to be part of the datacloud, brainstorming big ideas, but you don't want to get stuck with the writing chore. These scripts are long, tedious affairs, linked to flow charts, arcane node-numbering conventions, programmer's notes and user interaction schemes. Rumor has it the script for the newest MediaVision game came in at 1,500 pages. And the level of writing generally tends to be worse than the back of a Wheaties box. Of course, with all the technological hurdles that must be overcome just to wring the bugs out of the code, the onscreen copy or voiceover is about the last thing anybody pays attention to. Which is why you'll be reading (and writing) copy like: " 20 percent faster throughput." The great thing is, no one will care. That's also the bad thing, too. While the delivery technology will improve under the onslaught of Moore's law, the quality of imagination and inspiration is subject to no such law that I know of.
The novelty of today's interactive CD-ROM or floppy that arrives in the mail will quickly wear off, to be replaced with all the enthusiasm that greets the arrival of the junk mail that announces, "You've just been approved for a $5,000 line of credit at our low financing of 18.9 percent." And people will interact with tomorrow's junk mail the same way they interact with today's: they'll immediately throw it in the trash.u
Sam McMillan is completing the transition from poet to pixel slave for Vivid Publishing, a multimedia software development company based in San Francisco, where he is senior producer. He also teaches Real World Writing for Interactive Multimedia at San Francisco State University's Department of Multimedia Studies.