Is there any place advertising shouldn’t go?

New York, April 14, 2023: Exactly 20 years after the successful decoding of the complete human genome, advertisers have found a way to encode their own messages onto our DNA.

Nike, always an innovator, went the molecular-branding route, arranging “non-working” chromosomes to spell out the famous sports gear manufacturer’s name when viewed under a microscope. “We felt that macro-level branding—billboards, shopping bags, and so forth—was no longer news. DNA represents a whole new opportunity for us” said Nike spokesperson Wan-Li Shiu-Greenberg.

 Guinness’s “Be your Guiness” app isn’t quite as subtle. Capitalizing on the fanatical loyalty of its customers, the famous brewery offers a “simple, low-cost, low-risk” genetic modification that lets them proudly display their beer of choice—on their forehead.

 The genetic tweak triggers capillary action that spells out “Guinness” across the forehead when the subject has consumed a pint of Guinness. Will other beers produce the same result? No, says company CMO Alec “Rugger” Cowins. “The same unique properties that make Guinness Stout impossible to imitate, are necessary to make the DNA modification work.”

 Says Shiu-Greenberg: “We used to think of the human genome as a blueprint. Now we think of it as a medium for branding.”

How do you feel about this dispatch from the future? Scandalized? Resigned? Psyched?

All legitimate reactions. But if your reaction is skepticism, be careful. The history of modern advertising is a steady encroachment of the commercial world into areas we once saw as sacrosanct. Hospitals. Schools. Amateur sports. Public transportation. PBS, for chrissakes.

And if you don’t think the human body is already fair game for advertisers, you haven’t heard Harley-Davidson’s marketing people talk about the many ways they facilitate tattooing their brand onto the pasty skin under all that black leather.

What has powered this encroachment? (A prejudicial term, I agree, but “expansion” really doesn’t capture what’s happening.) I think it’s a combination of 3 forces:

Technology

Message Saturation

Income inequality

Technology is the most obvious culprit. Radio, TV, internet, mobile, p2p, social sharing, cloud—as soon as a new communications technology is created, new ways to “support” it via advertising soon follow. And as technological innovation bends communication towards the hyper-personal—think cookies and Facebook data-mining—so advertising slipstreams behind it and finds new ways to get past our personal firewalls.

Message Saturation is just arithmetic: you can’t, as a gnarly old art director once told me, put 10 pounds of shit in a 5-lb. box. Advertisers used to sell 8 minutes out of every hour of programming for commercials. Now it’s as high as 26 minutes. So each message has more competition. Content—the reason people engage in the 1st place—becomes less appealing. Viewers get more fatigued and, if they’re tech-savvy, more motivated to find ad-free workarounds. Eventually, you just run out of room, literally and psychologically. “White space”—an uncluttered advertising environment– becomes a Holy Grail. Sometimes that white space is geographic, like emerging global markets. But mostly, it’s cultural—whatever parts of society and daily life that are still pristinely uncommercial. What determines which of these increasingly rare ad-free zones will remain that way? Money. Which brings us to…

Income Inequality. In case you haven’t noticed, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is happening not only to individuals, but to institutions and governments. Stockton and Palo Alto are both in California but might as well be in different galaxies, such is the disparity in their wealth and their prospects for the future. Palo Alto doesn’t need to pimp its hospitals, schools and infrastructure to advertisers, so it doesn’t. Stockton would sell its kindergarten classrooms to Phillip Morris if it could, which it probably can’t because there aren’t enough people left in Stockton who can afford premium-brand cigarettes. But in between Stockton and Palo Alto there are hundreds of American towns, cities and institutions who are looking hard at their budget shortfalls and their white-space assets ands wondering where, if anywhere, they can afford to draw the line.

To be continued…

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