It's Super Bowl LIV in 2020. Record-setting numbers of viewers are tuned in to watch the game, but not on television and not over the Internet. Instead they are using handheld broadband devices that allow them to project the transmission onto any flat surface. And in 2020, just as today, viewers are interested in the game, but they're even more interested in the advertising.
The commercials, of course, are great--surprisingly better than they are now. Directors make sure the commercials are moving, exciting, entertaining; research and planning make sure they are relevant; technicians make sure the effects are breathtaking.
It's not the commercials that are the most interesting part, though: the really important advertising is hiding in plain sight on the field. The Microsoft Mustangs are playing the GM Generals at Cisco Stadium in a town called Ciscoville--formerly known as Philadelphia. Corporations will pay big money for the right to digitize logos onto the T shirts of the fans in the stands. Logos of sponsors won't be painted on stadium signs or on the field anymore. Thanks to a trend that is already happening, they'll be digitally embedded in the image on your screen. The logos you see will depend on your personal interests and profile, and they'll be different from the ones seen by your next-door neighbors.
Advertising will change profoundly over the next couple of decades, although there's a good chance you won't notice the difference, since the most meaningful changes won't be visible to the casual observer. It's the changes that are happening underground that will count, and they're the ones we should be aware of. Advertising in the future will be surgically, stealthily and eerily targeted, and disturbingly omnipresent.
Technology, naturally, will be the engine. User-tracking software that records your TV- and Internet-viewing habits in minute detail--and crosses it with your purchasing history--will allow the advertiser to know that you have children, that you eat meat, that your native language is Spanish and that your dishwasher is however many years old. That way you will be shown commercials for minivans, cheeseburgers and replacement dishwashers, all in Spanish, and not for roadsters, tofu and replacement refrigerators, in English. (In fact, this technology already exists.) Refined with data that track what kinds of online ads you tend to click on--funny, sentimental, fact laden--every commercial will hit home.
Say what you will, that's a nifty trick. In the future people won't be bothered with advertising messages irrelevant to them. They'll tend to like advertising better because it's so carefully tailored to their tastes. It will begin to feel less like an intrusion. This works for the advertiser too because fewer dollars will be wasted. While it's a little dispiriting to think we can be so predictably manipulated, maybe that's a fair price to pay to avoid the pollution of messages you don't care about.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the advertising outlets that exist today--TV and radio commercials, print ads, billboards and taxi tops--will not be plentiful enough to accommodate all the commercial messages that are agitating to get out. Advertising will therefore necessarily slip beyond the boundaries of the 30-second commercial and the full-page ad and migrate to the rest of the world, including entertainment, journalism and art.