Building a better billboard

April 16, 2019 (856 words) :: Advertising technology solutions tend to optimise for the world as it is, not the world as it should be.
Tags: advertising, startups

This post is day 106 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Picture your average billboard: a huge flat expanse of advertising next to the highway or maybe on the face of a building. It’s analog, of course, and there are some upsides compared to digital ads: you’re not charged for fake views by phantom passersby, and nobody can sequester a billboard behind an ad-blocker. On the other hand, because it’s analog, it’s less versatile. You can’t customise what’s on the billboard based on the demographics of the people who might see it.

Now imagine you’re an advertising tech company whose mandate is to build a better billboard. How could you import the versatility of the digital advertising world into the analog realm in order to improve lift?

One way is to go with a digital billboard. Since a billboard can be seen by multiple people at the same time, it’s probably infeasible to customise the display on an individual level, but you can do it on an aggregate level. Let’s assume that all your billboard’s potential viewers have mobile phones and fairly detailed data profiles. Then, for any billboard, you could track the demographics and psychographics of people who are within a given distance of the billboard, and change the display in real time. The more granular the data, the more precise your ads can be: is that a group of teenage girls leaving a Justin Bieber concert? Show them an ad for some product he endorsed. Rich and clueless tourists looking for an authentic nightlife experience? Match them with a bar in the vicinity that’s willing to bid the most for the ad spot precisely because it’s the biggest rip-off.

Of course, getting access to data this granular isn’t exactly easy, but that’s the dream, isn’t it? The more data is tracked and collected, the closer we get to perfectly targeted ads on every surface. Google is already working on this.

In fact, you don’t actually need to own the physical digital billboards to make this idea happen. You could skip the physical realm entirely and go straight to the virtual realm: augmented reality! Partner with a company that already makes suitable goggles (Google Glass, if those ever happen, or Oculus, now owned by Facebook), and partner with another company that builds data profiles on consumers, and bam, you have the perfect ad-tech business, without any of the physical infrastructure. Anytime someone wearing these goggles looks at a billboard, conduct an on-the-fly auction to serve the most relevant advertisement instead, blocking out the original analog billboard. You could even frame this as user-friendly, because you’re hiding the original (untargeted) billboard and replacing it with a much more relevant (and thereby desired) ad. If you make enough progress with this business model, and if one of your investors or board members also happens to be an investor in the company that makes the goggles, you are pretty much guaranteed a lucrative acqui-hire.

That’s great for you, but for the rest of us, it just means more targeted ads everywhere we look, ads designed precisely to wear down our defenses and make us consume more even though we know it won’t make us happy. What might be ideal for an ad-tech startup (they get revenue!) or a marketing department (look at the increased lift!) isn’t necessarily going to be good for society at large.

One problem with our current economic landscape is that any technology that increases ad revenue will probably be attempted, even if it leads to dystopian-seeming outcomes for the average user. The incentives are just too great. This is, obviously, a really dumb state of affairs. For one, it leads eager startup founders to think that they’re actually doing something useful for the world simply because they’re solving the problem of ads not being relevant enough, and startup founders, as a class, tend to be insufferable as it is. For another, it saturates our daily lives with more and more perfectly-targeted advertising, driving us toward a consumerist existential despair.

If you’re trying to solve the problem of “building a better billboard”, consider whether the only “better” billboard is no billboard. The solution to generic billboards isn’t to enable ad-targeting for greater precision and finesse; it’s to abolish billboards altogether, or at least dramatically reduce their prevalence while also limiting the kinds of content that can be displayed to the non-commercial sort. There is no singular way to make billboards “better” - the question to ask is, better for whom? Better for the people who maybe don’t want their mind polluted with the logo of yet another weed delivery startup, or better for those who serve as middlemen in an economic system predicated on the notion of endless consumption?

To sum up: advertising technology is a futile endeavour. Billboards are merely a microcosm of the advertising ecosystem, serving to illustrate the uselessness of the whole thing. The world be a much better place if the entire ecosystem disappeared, because the costs outweigh the potential benefits. Truth be told, these days it’s hard to imagine a world without the giant dead corpse of advertising hanging over it, but we should try.

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