80 Years of Ideas

Back to the Future: Have We Lived Up to Expectations of Advertising?

From 1977, the Late Biochemist and Science Fiction Legend Isaac Asimov Foretells the Ad Future in 2000

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Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov Credit: AP
In 1977, Ad Age ran biochemist and science-fiction author Isaac Asimov's piece forecasting what the advertising "future" would be like in 2000. Within it are the seeds of many advances in current use: opt-in advertising, e-readers, 3-D technology and "private TV channels," which one might consider a private YouTube channel or a Facebook profile today. And his theory of "advertology" might well be analogous to the current movement toward cause and purpose-driven marketing.

To those of us living in the year 2000, there is the definite feeling of a new world in the process of being born -- a radically different new world.

The birth pangs are agonizing, for humanity isn't leaving the old world without considerable damage to itself. There are 6 billion people on Earth, and the oil is just about gone. We are making do with coal, nuclear power and a variety of other energy forms -- but most of all we are making do with restrictions and, in too many places, with famine.

Out in space, however, solar-power stations are being built and the first will soon be in operation. Energy will once more be relatively plentiful, and it will be used more wisely, we hope, by a world that has been taught by the events of these recent decades to cooperate for survival.

The shape of the new world is originating in space, in the form of the communications satellites that orbit the Earth. It is hard to believe that the first commercial-communications satellite was launched just 35 years ago, at a date well within the memory of those who today are only middle-aged. It was a primitive device capable of receiving and transmitting the equivalent of only one TV channel and 240 voice circuits.

There were improvements, of course, but as long as the communicating network consisted of radio beams, there were fairly narrow restrictions on the room that existed for sight and sound.

The turning point came when modulated laser beams were used instead. The visible light of lasers consists of waves that are millions of times shorter than those of radio beams, and therefore, vibrate millions of times faster per second. The number of channels and circuits that can be squeezed into a beam of radiation depends upon its rate of vibration; that is, upon its frequency. This means that a laser beam can carry millions of times as many channels and circuits as a radio wave. Work is underway to increase the capacity anywhere from 10 to 100 times farther.

On Earth, a laser revolution in communications also took place, and the vast network of copper and aluminum pathways that serve as carriers for modulated electrical currents has given way to the smaller, cheaper, and yet more capacious and versatile-optical fibers that carry modulated laser light.

The result is that we are living now in the age of the personal TV channel. The United States has been in the forefront of the laser revolution, and it is experiencing the effects the most. Some 20% of the American population now has a specific TV channel assigned to each person, much as some decades ago each had a specific telephone number.

It is estimated that in 20 years every American will have his or her own channel, and in 50 years everyone in the world will (always assuming that the present level of population control and the projected slow decrease in the world's population will be maintained).

This new "room for privacy" revolution in communications makes it possible for a person to take individual advantage of methods for reaching out to the world of people and of knowledge.

For instance, the communications satellite is distance-insensitive -- it takes only a slight adjustment of orientation to receive a communications beam from Africa and then to transmit it to Australia. Conversations happen via sound, plus (if desired) picture; this represents no change in effort whether across a block or across an ocean. Anyone can speak to anyone anywhere at a price well within the reach of anyone.

Then, too, the advance of computers has produced the computerized library. It is possible for an American to hook his private channel into a library and have access to a catalog that will give him code numbers for each of millions of books or periodicals. He can then, by use of a specific code, have any of these reproduced on the screen by microfilm projection -- for reading or for reference. Right now, models are being produced that will permit the production of printed facsimiles of any of these objects in whole or in part.

This has, of course, created a revolution in advertising. We have seen such revolutions before. It was only a generation ago, for instance, that the trend in advertising was away from the static representations in newspapers and magazines and toward the active, live representations on TV.

Now there is a synthesis of the two. The static representation has gained new life, but it has done so on the TV screen. Newspapers read on the screen can have the advertisements interspersed in the time-honored fashion, and any advertisement that catches the eye and interest of a viewer can be centered, enlarged to fill the screen, and facsimiled.

The ease with which this can be done is crowding out the old-fashioned live-TV advertising.

This, in fact, seems to be leading to the creation of advertising that does not depend on its surroundings for attention -- neither on a newspaper nor a TV program.

Ad Specialties Inc. is, for instance, widely recognized among the advertising community representatives as being the wave of the future. It produces coded ads much as a library produces a coded catalog.

Its philosophy is that people who view ads as intrusions on their newspaper or on their TV programs do so because most of the time they have no interest in the product being advertised. If they were looking upon, or reading, an ad dealing with something that they very much want at that time, it would be the news or the program that would be viewed as the intrusion.

It is now possible, therefore, for subscribers to Ad Specialties Inc. to inspect an elaborate catalog of product listings ("from plasma lights to plastic leads," one of its own ads says) and then code their TV sets for the reception of ads dealing with some particular type of product. They can inspect the various ads for that product, facsimile those they choose to, and be prepared for further inquiries.

It seems inevitable that the practice will spread. Large department stores in Dallas, Chicago and in New York are already installing equipment that will enable anyone possessing credit cards issued by those stores to view a coded catalog and, through that, any products they have on sale.

This practice may become universal, and in the next generation may go much farther still.

Holographic (three-dimensional) TV is still in the experimental stage, but this year it is possible to visit the General Electrics Laboratories and see a showing of scenes from "Hamlet," in which the various players move freely about the stage, are in full size and seem utterly real. If, however, you were to try to touch them, your hand would pass through them, for each of the players, as well as the setting and the stage itself, is an image produced by focused light waves. The real players are two miles away on a real stage.

Some estimate that within 15 years the process will be perfected to the point where it can be brought into the home. We can then imagine that there will be a swing of advertising techniques to a new kind of live performance.

A potential consumer can inspect the fruit in a supermarket three-dimensionally and in life-like color and apparent texture and order on that basis. A new microfilm projector can be studied in realistic detail, and its image can be placed in that spot in the den in which the real thing, once bought, will stand. Furniture can be tested in this way for size, appearance, and the manner in which it will blend with the rest of the room.

It will even be commonplace to have clothes modeled by live people, or at least by the images of those people, in the individual living room.

All this amounts to an increasing personalization of advertising; the consuming public is moving away from tolerance of shotgun techniques, and will continue to do so. It is the "I-don't-have-a-headache-so-don't-show-me-any-headache-pills" attitude.

This has meant that advertising has become a more intimate affair, more soft-sell. The tendency will be to elicit individual response from the consumer and all of advertising is going to resemble, more and more, the attitude of a clerk in a store conferring with a particular customer.

Advertising has always had to depend on an understanding of human psychology, but this understanding is becoming both more important and more difficult under the present techniques. The academic world recognizes this and is also increasingly aware of the effectiveness of appropriate advertising for better filling the needs of people -- especially in this difficult transition period between the old world and the new.

It is not surprising, then, that one of the popular books of recent years is Epstein's "Advertology" -- an ugly word, some say, for the concept is all-important. A number of colleges are already offering courses in advertology as part of the program of their psychology departments, and it will not be long before important executives in advertising agencies will be sporting degrees in the subject.

Advertology, if properly developed, will go far beyond the matter of supplying individuals with material objects designed to suit their personal needs. It can apply to humanity as a whole.

It is recognized, for instance, that the manner in which we are surviving the present crisis depends to a great extent on a jerry-built adjustment of society, and one which may at any time collapse and bring civilization down with it.

Thus, famine is being held within bounds by the more or less voluntary self-denial of the more developed parts of the world, which are engaged in strict conservation of energy and of material resources in order that the poorer regions may attain a bare subsistence. Again, outer space is being developed on a global basis through the more or less voluntary cooperation of most of the nations of the world. Finally, population policy is the product of day-to-day improvisation everywhere.

These voluntary self-denials, voluntary cooperation, day-to-day improvisations may break down at any time, with incalculable consequences.

It is clear that advertology is essentially the science of persuasion. Advertising people and salesmen have always known this, and modern technology has broadened the ability to persuade. How better to use the science to persuade humanity to save itself?

With worldwide laser communications, advertising can, in the next couple of decades, reach everyone in the world, and advertology will then be called upon to develop techniques that will make it possible for world cooperation to be placed on a firm foundation.

We must sell the world, through the persuasion techniques developed by advertology, on the necessity of reducing population, of conserving and recycling the Earth's resources, of exploiting space to supplement Earth's energy supply. Most of all, humanity must be sold on the necessity of employing its aggressive impulses not against itself, but in battling ignorance and folly and in extending the frontiers of knowledge and wisdom.

And in that manner, we may all be saved.

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