The Next Big Marketing Disrupter: Driverless Cars
Creativity Marketing Transformation

The Next Big Marketing Disrupter: Driverless Cars

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Like a lot of folks out there, I dig the idea of driverless cars. A safer and faster way to get around, plus the option of watching a movie? Count me in.

What I don’t dig: being trapped on all sides by obnoxious advertising.

Some experts are predicting that outcome. Along with self-driving vehicles, they say, come new opportunities for brands to market to a captive audience. Replace the steering wheel and dashboard with a screen, and suddenly brands have a whole new way of getting their message out, and the rider can’t do anything about it. Forget road rage; here comes ad rage.

On the other hand, what if brands could use the driverless opportunity for good? Could self-driving cars make marketing more relevant than ever before?

Google carAdvertising Run Wild

My self-driving car nightmare scenario looks like something from a Black Mirror episode. Think about it: If drivers no longer need to pay attention to the road, advertisers are free to create distractions both inside and outside the vehicle, bombarding riders with ads, ads, and ads.

Inside the car, screens almost certainly will play a bigger role than they currently do.

“In the future, we will have more screens in cars,” Mike Short, head of research and development at O2, told The Drum. “If you don’t have a driver, those screens are likely to be there to add to passenger information, passenger safety and give you better real-time mapping. This in turn means that the screens might carry some adverts alongside that relevant information.”

Entertainment will also shine in the driverless era. If cars become like giant smartphones, binge-watching on Netflix can continue through our commute. We may start paying for content in our cars—whether via Hulu, Spotify, or Pandora. Subsidizing our content experience will be location-based ads, now more personal (and intrusive) than ever because of the trove of location data our travels will generate.

Outside the vehicle, the picture is scarier. Freed from driver distraction concerns, outdoor advertising could become an interruption advertising arms race approaching Times-Square levels. Movement, interaction, and animation all could become key tools in the billboard arsenal.

Bespoke billboards could become another trend. For example, if Google knows that I recently searched for “best organic cat food,” theoretically it could trigger a personalized, cat-laden billboard when I drive near a pet store. Kinda cool, but super creepy, too.

Finally, the physical shape of cars themselves could get strange—like Red Bull-car-on-steroids level of strange. One day we might get “theme” car experiences to accompany things like big movie roll-outs, Jesse Basham of Lightning Jar suggests. Riders might hop in a Star Wars-themed car and get treated to a sneak preview or even play a video game, all in the vehicle.

While riding in around in a Star Wars Destroyer-shaped car would be pretty amazing, it won’t be cool to drive in a sea of “spam cars”—vehicles totally covered in ads. These driverless vehicles will have no other purpose than to putter around, hoping to grab eyeballs from human-occupied vehicles. “The road may soon look like a Walmart coupon page,” futurist Zoltan Istvan wrote on Vice’s Motherboard channel.

Spam cars are unlikely to happen anytime soon, given how expensive self-driving cars remain. But if the tech becomes cheaper, it’s not an improbable scenario.

The features of a Google driverless carA Better Alternative

For brands, driverless cars may seem like perfect advertising territory. But here’s the thing: Whether it’s a TV, computer, smartphone, or driverless car, nobody likes interrupt ads.

No truer is this adage than when looking at the rise of ad block software. The more intrusive the ad, the more compelled users are to install a blocker. According to a survey from Teads, nearly three out of four people cite intrusive ads as motivating their choice to use an ad blocker, more than any other factor such as speed or data usage. Pre-roll ads and pop-up ads, considered two of the most intrusive ad formats, tended to drive up ad-blocker adoption the most.

In the driverless car scenario, intrusive and annoying advertising could create a similar backlash.

“We went through kind of this same thing with wearables,” Tony Bailey, SVP of Technology at DigitasLBi, told GeoMarketing. “Everyone was so excited about the possibility for advertising and how we’re going to serve ads on this cool new platform, but no consumer is going to say ‘I got this new Apple Watch and I can’t wait to see an ad on it’ and it’s the same for self driving cars.”

In other words, just because you can offer advertising doesn’t mean you should. Intrusive and annoying ads are inversely related to relevance: The more obnoxious brands get, the less people are interested.

That’s not to say advertising in a driverless car world is impossible.

When I’m entering hour eight of a long road trip, for example, all I want to do is find the next easily accessible Starbucks. A smart driverless car could help me to do that. If I’m on my way to the grocery store, the vehicle could serve up some suggestions of dishes to prepare based on current specials. When gas is getting low, it could suggest nearby gas stations—a simple interaction, perhaps, but something that would be incredibly useful.

Marketing that aims at enhancing a driverless car experience, rather than disrupting it, could be a goldmine. If driverless cars go mainstream—and all signs seem to point to that happening relatively soon—it’s a big opportunity for advertisers and brands. Let’s hope brands choose to add value, not spam, to the roadway.

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