The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Soon when you walk down the street, 3-D creatures could try to sell you something

A new form of outdoor advertising is slowly taking hold. But experts warn of overload.

A giant digital rugby ball bursts forth from a billboard as part of Ocean Outdoor's campaign for Vodafone. Anamorphic advertising is coming — usually right out of a building. (Ocean Outdoor)
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It all began with a floating cat.

The giant feline suddenly appeared suspended over Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station. Throughout the summer, it stretched awake in the morning, meowed at passersby during rush hour and curled into a sleepy ball after midnight.

The cat, along with a cresting ocean wave above the streets of Seoul, wasn’t a biology experiment gone awry. It was a 3-D anamorphic outdoor ad, a proof-of-concept from several Asian design firms. The pieces would inspire principals at British ad company Ocean Outdoor, owner of many public screens across Europe, to create tools for a 3-D ad platform called DeepScreen. Part art installation, part “1984″-esque vision, the results hint at what our commercialized outdoor spaces might soon look like.

A gigantic billboard ad in Shinjuku featuring a 3D cat that appears perched on a ledge was organized by local businesses as a mascot for the area. (Video: Reuters)

In just a few months, Ocean Outdoor’s Piccadilly Circus location and others across Europe have attracted advertisers including Fortnite, Netflix, Vodafone (the ad has 25-foot rugby stars and their ball bursting through a building), Sony, Amazon’s Prime Video (for its new “Wheel of Time” fantasy series) and food-service company Deliveroo. Two weeks ago, the British agency that worked on the “Wheel of Time” spot, Amplify, brought it to Times Square. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In that ad, actress Rosamund Pike, whose character Moiraine represents “the light,” reaches out her hand, beckoning for help. The Fade, an agent of “the darkness,” reaches out his mouth, looking for a city bus to devour. The effect can give passersby the impulse to duck and is a leap ahead of the area’s famous steaming cup of soup.

For anyone who has thought that what would spice up sidewalk life is gargantuan branded figures, this innovation is for you. Should it go wide, the anamorphic trend could augur a new moment of full-bodied action on the nation’s streets, of spinning tacos and flying whiskey bottles, all doing to the flat-screen digital billboard what color TV did to that old RCA.

On one hand, the trend could make advertising more dynamic and fun, giving us giant digital playspaces anytime we step outside. “When you literally have things popping out of a billboard at you, it feels inviting in all kinds of new ways,” said Greg Coleman, Prime Video’s global head of marketing and franchise.

It could also turn our public commons into obtrusive brand exercises, making advertising literally something we can’t avoid. Anyone who has ever endured a too-popular meme knows it’s a short jump from virality to annoyance.

“This is exciting and it’s attention-getting,” said Arun Lakshmanan, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management and an expert in immersive advertising. “It also could really start getting intrusive.”

One of the first known billboards was hung in the United States in the 1830s, and it advertised, fittingly, a circus. Painted roadside billboards proliferated in the 1920s as Americans bought cars, and brands such as Camel and Coca-Cola wanted to reach them.

Digital billboards caught on this century thanks to outdoor giants like JCDecaux and Clear Channel Outdoor; the form allowed for quick pivots and ad rotations. While it seems like the stuff of an earlier era, the outdoor-ad business has held steady ($8.1 billion in the United States this year, down slightly from its recent high of $9 billion but up 6 percent over lockdown-heavy 2020). The form offers an advantage: With so much ad-skipping technology on other platforms, outside is one of the last places consumers can’t switch off.

Now comes anamorphic. It works via “forced perspective” — the idea that flat images can be manipulated to appear dimensional from certain vantage points. While the fundamentals are centuries old, very bright and bendable high-definition screens with ultra-quick microprocessors make the illusions newly convincing.

Production is expensive — it can cost upward of $500,000, several times a 30-second TV spot — and labor intensive. Where many 30-second spots can be completed in a few weeks, the “Wheel” activation took three months to produce, encompassing development, a green-screen shoot, advanced VFX and customization for each city. (The “sweet spot” of where to beam differs in every location.)

“Everything with anamorphic needs to be thought about in an extremely detailed way,” said Jeavon Smith, chief creative officer at Amplify, which last year helped inaugurate anamorphic with a PlayStation5 spot.

Anamorphic supporters make a straightforward argument. Pedestrians these days have their heads buried in their phones and, maybe soon, AR glasses. A little razzle is needed to get their attention.

“And what’s great is this isn’t a technology for consumers; you don’t need special eyewear,” said Susann Jerry, a spokeswoman for Ocean. She cited internal company research showing that 3-D displays produced passerby recall at 2.5 times the rate of flat-screen ads.

Jerry said it also appeals to advertisers as consumers (for now) pour back into public life. While we were holed up bingeing television, it turns out, ad agencies were tele-meeting on the best ways to gobsmack us when we emerged.

The elephant in the Zoom is personalization. If handled carefully — very carefully — these slick new screen ads don’t have to be preplanned; they could change based on what a sensor picks up from passersby. A group of young women could prompt an ad for a youth clothing brand; a trickle of electric vehicles might mean an environmentally themed placement. Ocean is already toying with this (it doesn’t collect personal data, Jerry said). Digital outdoor could offer a more lifelike version of the insidiously personal ads that already hit us daily on search and social media.

Ocean, Amplify and others are part of a movement of sorts. It’s one that prioritizes storytelling and experiences, and has about as much in common with traditional digital advertising as WhatsApp does with airmail. It’s a philosophy that wants to turn buildings blue and the world neon, where the line between public space and brand messaging has been erased, preferably replaced by a swoosh.

Because anamorphic requires a certain viewing angle, it contains an odd contradiction: It may actually play better in curated online environments, where the best angle could be chosen and displayed. It’s an old-school show for the Instagram age.

“The brands actually don’t mind that,” said Thales Teixeira, a former Harvard Business School professor and co-founder of digital consultancy Decoupling. “Even a high-traffic area like Times Square only sees a certain number of people every day. But if you go viral you can be seen by millions.”

The problem with marketing, though, is that it can be self-cannibalizing. Every innovation is quickly copycatted, suddenly making it seem a lot less innovative.

“That’s why these spots need to tell a good story on their own,” said Jacqueline Babb, a veteran marketer who is now a senior lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “The media itself can’t be the story.”

Nir Eyal, an author and expert on the attention economy, called this in an email the “shiny pony” problem. New forms of advertising lose their luster. Customers could lose interest.

But these ads may not be aimed only at them. Teixeira notes that the appearance of innovation could be equally important for what it telegraphs to investors, retailers and competitors.

Even the skeptical would admit there’s something cool about dynamic images occupying the space around us. But is it scary in the hands of corporations? Could advertising get “Minority Reported,” where we are all Tom Cruise, assaulted by airborne ads tailored to us every time we leave our homes?

Could a political demagogue even use the tech to loom large in public?

“How we want to regulate this is a very good question,” said Buffalo’s Lakshmanan. “Unfortunately, in the history of advertising, it tends to be answered only after something has gotten popular.”

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