The Creepy, Dystopian Future of Advertising

“We don’t need you to type at all because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about … Is that over the line?” – Google Chairman Eric Schmidt

Everybody wants to be a somebody when they grow up. You know what I mean: the kind of somebody who is important and influential. Somebody who is well-off, well-respected and well-known.

Turns out, that may not be such a good idea after all.

If you do manage to achieve that lofty position, you will find yourself in the crosshairs of every advertiser on Earth. And, in the not-too-distant future, they will know everything about you. They will be able to find you anytime, anywhere. Like marketing Terminators with high-tech targeting capability, they will not stop, ever, until you are spammed.

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic … or maybe not. That sort of depends on how far advertisers and media companies are willing to go. But I bet you have no idea just how ruthless and crazed these people are about identifying, locating and saturating their targets.

You just might want to grab a stiff drink and have a seat before you read the rest. It is absolutely horrifying.

First, the numbers. Worldwide media and marketing services spending will approach $1 trillion this year – that’s trillion with a ‘t’, mind you. TV ads, digital ads and direct marketing together account for nearly three quarters of that staggering number, but digital’s share of the total grows every year.

There’s a very good reason for the crazy growth in online marketing: our growing dependence on smart gadgets. In the U.S., the average adult spent more time online than watching TV for the first time in 2013. And digital media exposure finally topped traditional viewing (TV, radio and print) in China last year, according to eMarketer.

Gone are the days when our eyes had to be glued to one of the five stations our black and white TVs could pick up or a magazine grabbed from a newsstand on our way home from work for those Mad Men advertisers to reach us. Today, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, they can and will find you.

After all, that’s what the smart-gadget revolution is all about. And more important than being able to spam you anytime, anywhere is the wealth of information those smart phones, tablets, watches, thermostats and other appliances gather about your buying, searching, reading, eating, traveling and living habits. Google and Facebook know more about you than you do, which is why advertisers are flocking to them for targeted contextual ads.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Internet of Things (IoT) means everything will be smart. There will be smart sensor networks embedded in everything from your car’s dashboard and fridge to your glasses and clothes. Pretty soon, when you stop and smell the roses, they will smell you right back.

What do you think will happen once we inevitably cross over into the all-consuming media realm of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR)? When machines and smart digital assistants from Amazon and Google will know literally everything you do and store all that information for instantaneous retrieval in the cloud.

You’ll get ads whispered in your ears and beamed directly to your eyeballs by augmented reality (AR) glasses, that’s what. Why do you think Google and Facebook are investing so heavily in AI, VR and AR? They’re advertising companies. That’s how they make a living. That combination of technologies will create a media renaissance.

And that’s when things are going to get downright dystopian.

Almost six years ago, Google chairman Eric Schmidt told The Atlantic, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” he said. “I would argue that implanting things in your brain is beyond the creepy line … at least for the moment until the technology gets better.”

Then, the leader of the most powerful media company on Earth continued, “We don’t need you to type at all because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about,” he said. “Is that over the line?”

Yes, Eric. That is over the line.