Object 60

New Worlds

2038, Earth

On a summer night in 2038, a fleet of gossamer blimps hovered into view over the hundred largest cities in the world, their surfaces shimmering with macroscopic visions of the Local Group and visions of dreams. Tens of thousands of performers and drones joined in, dancing and darting between the ground and the sky. Every available display and projector in physical reality extended the scenes, creating a beautiful, fragmented panorama in Times Square, People's Square, Shibuya, Yonge-Dundas, Piccadilly Circus, and elsewhere.

At first, few noticed it, occupied as they were in their Glass or Sopol environments. But one by one, they paused. Perhaps they saw a spark of real light out of the corner of an eye, or received an astounded glyph from a friend; or perhaps they simply saw other people gazing up at the sky. They lowered their glasses or blinked their lenses off and looked up, too.

And for just a few hours, a most unusual thing happened. Hundreds of millions of people around the world looked at something together in the real world, in real time, at dancing images and beguiling artworks and old movies.

When the show drew to a close in the early hours, the displays shifted to a deep red, as if in a bow to the coming dawn. And above that deep red was drawn a simple, elegant script, with two short words: Coca-Cola.

In the noisy, crowded augmented reality arms race of the 20s and 30s, brands and advertisers and artists covered every aspect of the world with impressive, shocking, distracting, and occasionally awesome virtual objects and environments. Gimmicks and good ideas alike had precipitously short half-lives, either being killed or copied within days or hours. But there was one sure-fire way that you could get noticed: with reality.

While the company didn't publicly reveal how much it spent, Coca-Cola's 'New Worlds' campaign is believed to be the single most expensive advertising stunt in history, quite literally — but only very briefly — overshadowing the sheer mass of augmented reality media that had come to dominate the chase for the public's attention.

Thanks to this preserved blimp and the hundreds just like it, Coca-Cola sales spiked around the world – although it's very much debatable whether this was due to the stunt or to the sales promotion that followed. Either way, today 'New Worlds' is regarded not as a triumph, but instead as the moment where the power of brands and advertising finally reached its zenith — or perhaps nadir.

"At what point did advertising's dominance over our everyday lives start to become eroded? Today's conventional wisdom points the finger of blame at the introduction of augmented reality. With its effectively unlimited inventory, AR led to a massive increase in virtual display advertising — swiftly followed by fears of its destruction as digital adblockers threatened to eliminate or replace every display advert in existence. Some media companies attempted to outlaw adblockers, others distributed subsidised or free — and locked-down — glasses. A few still had targeting good enough for their ads to be let through the filters, but the end result was significant disruption and confusion."

That's the opinion of Christopher Payne, Chair of Media Studies at Edinburgh University. But Payne believes that augmented reality wasn't the real turning point, that larger factors were at work.

"Permit me to tell a little story. If we go back to the 18th century in the UK, you had two huge shifts going on: urbanisation and industrialisation. The average town or city-dweller now had increased access to a wider range of attractive goods. They had a choice in, let’s say, what shoes or tools they could buy, rather than just buying whatever happened to be available in their village.

"So, let's imagine you make shoes. You need adverts to help people become aware of your product and to make it stand out from the competition. If you are successful — and exceptionally long-lived — you might establish a ‘brand' to help guard against competitors passing off their inferior, cheaper shoes as your originals. In this situation, advertising and branding make plenty of sense, even if it is expensive.

"All of this continued for a good couple of centuries — as people's incomes increased and the opportunities for reaching them grew, advertising became increasingly sophisticated and important. Indeed, I believe peak advertising was reached some time in the late 20th century, when mass media and mass production combined to create an enormous reach. Their command over audiences' attention allowed them to fabricate wants on a scale that makes desire modifiers today look like amateurs.

"Things started to look dicey in the early 21st century, though. Due to micromanufacturing, mass customisation, and the rising role of digital goods, there was such an abundance of choice that only the biggest properties could advertise their way to overwhelming commercial success. And with the internet, people were making their decisions not simply on what they saw on TV or on a billboard, but based on machine-driven social recommendations. It's not as if people didn't pay attention to friends and reviews before the internet, but by making it cheap to move and process information, the internet tipped the balance in the consumer's favour.”

Payne's view is shared by many scholars today, who also point to the power that search engines and, later, personal intelligent agents had in capturing and channeling consumers' ‘intent to buy’ towards the most appropriate vendor. For a while, search engines and agents also supported paid advertising, but during the 20s and 30s, they began to shift slowly towards a hybrid commission/referral model, wherein the creator of the agent received a cut of the sales.

Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Kraft, and similar brands struggled to compete against a tide of cheap, high quality, and often highly targeted goods whose production was aided by automated manufacturing services. When brand replacement organisations appeared, some using automatic ‘ethical offset' pricing to promote just-as-good generics for soft drinks or clothes, they delivered a terrible blow to incumbents. And faced with an audience that was increasingly immune to traditional advertising, they either precipitously lowered their prices in the hope of gaining short-lived 'market share', or they relied on the waning power of nostalgia among older demographics.

Of course, very little truly dies in media. It can still be worth spending money to grab people's attention for high-margin goods and services. No doubt everyone who saw Coca-Cola's 'New Worlds' show appreciated the effort they put into it. Whether the soft drink’s increased sales sales were down to the advert or to the coupons is sadly unknown — but it is telling that it was the first, and last, grand advertising spectacle of its kind.