Penetrating the Car: A Marketing Metastasis Update

the spirit of BBM They can’t stop. The system they serve is literally insatiable. Every newly “penetrated” then saturated life-sphere can only serve as a stepping stone to the next. Unending profit-making simply must find new necks to bite, or more places in which it can bite existing ones.

The latest off-the-job time/place about to have its penetration level increased is none other than the insides of corporate capitalism’s most important product — the private automobile.

This week’s edition of Advertising Age contains a report titled “Why Your Car May Soon Be Driving Digital Advertising.” It is penned by one Steve Rubel, a marketing practitioner and blogger leading the coming overclass race to insert more and better videographic marketing stimuli into the car.

banality of evilRubel reports:

If you think there’s already enough to distract you in your life, just wait. With Americans spending 100 hours a year commuting, according to the Census Bureau, the internet is coming to your car in a big way — and not just to the front seat either.

As is so often the case in our super-capitalist society, the technological basis for this coming penetration is an artifact of past marketing operations:

Dashboard navigation systems provide a natural entry point. Year-over-year unit sales of GPS devices grew nearly 500% during the 2007 holiday season, according to NPD.

This seems to me to be a textbook case of big business marketers turning a molehill of legitimate need into a mountain of profitable sales. I haven’t seen hard numbers (which may itself be a sign of the importance of the corporate pushing behind the “demand” for GPS), but the actual use of GPS systems almost cannot be high or important in the large majority of automotive trips, which are commutes to and from highly familiar places. Instead, I’d wager heavily that GPS marketers, probing like all BBMers for profitable buttons to push, know full-well that most people think they get lost much more than they actually do, and are thus susceptible to the sell. Pair that vulnerability with a back ground of marketing-encouraged techno-festishism and the difficulty of thinking of Christmas and birthday presents in this hyper-commodified society, and there you have it…

But whatever the rational and irrational reasons for their spread may be, the fact is that GPS units are now inside a great many cars. That has big meaning for corporate marketers, as Rubel explains:

Several GPS manufacturers such as Tele Atlas, which supplies systems to the automakers, already display the logos of nearby fast-food restaurants’ gas stations. However, the screens are quickly getting more useful — or cluttered, depending on your point of view. Navigon’s high-end model, for example, features helpful restaurant reviews and ratings from Zagat.

Soon, devices that can both send and receive data will hit the market. Dash, for example, is integrating Web 2.0 crowdsourcing into its systems, allowing cars to send information back to the company to improve traffic calculations. As mobile broadband becomes more ubiquitous, it’s conceivable that these devices will soon talk to your cellphone via Bluetooth and, thus, talk to social networks as well.

With send/receive capabilities and overall bandwidth improving, local contextual advertising, perhaps rich-media-based, is just around the corner. Google already allows users in Europe to send directions from the web to maps on connected dashboards. Microsoft is working in a system through its Sync technology to provide ad-supported, location-based information for which users would normally pay. (Disclosure: Microsoft and Zagat are clients of Edelman, my employer.)

As is so often the case, the primary victims of the coming blitzkrieg will be children:

The back seat offers perhaps more immediate promise for TV advertisers in search of new venues. In March Sirius and Chrysler launched an in-car video network called Backseat TV. The subscription service carries kids programming from Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. Kids weaned on the service will surely demand more as the technology gets more sophisticated, perhaps to the chagrin of parents.

And therein lies the rub: Marketers will need to strike a careful balance to protect privacy and to not push into a space that many consider sacrosanct. However, given the size and captive nature of the in-car audience, the digital-advertising potential is becoming very clear.

Translation of that last bit into honest English goes like this: “Marketers will have to be careful and gentle as we insert our tools of coercion into another place (like every prior place) where we know people don’t want it. Despite our constant public professions that we only use marketing to gather information to make us better servants of people’s independent desires, clear knowledge that we’re utterly unwelcome in this new sphere, of course, will not and cannot stop us.”

The moral of this story? To the extent it can continue to outrun its own mounting wastes and dangers, corporate capitalism means the eventual total destruction of free time. Genuinely independent free time, of course, is nothing less than a necessary prerequisite for intelligent citizenship and, thus, democracy.

As somebody once remarked, to such questions, the capitalist asks: “Ought these to trouble us, since they increase our profits?”

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