Marketers, the Military, and Me

You may have heard already about the A&E billboard beaming audio to the street in New York City. A speaker mounted above the billboard sends ultrasound waves from 7 stories up to a specific location below. Because it’s highly directional, for people outside the target area it’s hardly, if at all, audible. Here’s a demonstration video made by the marketing company:

The “Audio Spotlight” technology has been written up in Gawker (who’s writer was thoroughly creeped out), AdAge, and as the subject of tech pieces in many media outlets. It was only WFMU that made the connection with military technology.

Having just watched the 2nd episode of Jon Ronson’s BBC Documentary, Crazy Rulers of the World (pt1 on google video or torrent all 3 parts) based on his book The Men Who Stare at Goats, this directed audio technology was fresh in my mind. Here’s that clip – the audio stuff kicks in at 45 seconds:

Now before you start connecting the dots, the Audio Spotlight was developed at MIT in Boston, while the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) seen in the Ronson video was developed by American Technology in San Diego. But they do essentially accomplish the same thing.

Without sounding like the conspiracy nuts Ronson features in his books, I do find the overlap with military techniques and advertising techniques noteworthy, if not amusing. Quite simply both parties are interested in “affecting behavior” as American Technology’s website puts it. And what kind of world do we live in when the same techniques used in “PSYOP” missions and “Detainee Operations” (see American Technology’s site) are used to promote television shows about ghosts?

One of the things I personally find fascinating is how people justify bringing new forms invasive advertising into the world. The inventor, Joe Pompei, who in video appears to be a well-meaning 30 something, sees this as a solution to noise pollution. He claims, “the whole idea is to spare other people.” I think he’s right. In cases where loudspeakers broadcast sound in every direction, needlessly, the audio spotlight is the solution hands-down. But that’s not the case with the A&E billboard. The A&E billboard introduces audio to an environment that had none – but supposedly it’s ok because it’s not blasting in every direction. Just one.

In response to criticism about just how creepy it is to have advertising messages more or less beamed into your head in public space, Pompei had this to say, “There’s going to be a certain population sensitive to it. But once people see what it does and hear for themselves, they’ll see it’s effective for getting attention.” What? Oh Joe, you’re right, they don’t understand. Once those complainers realize that it’s “effective at getting attention” then they’ll see.

Actually Joe, the problem is it already got their attention.

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