Imagine this episode of The Jetsons: George has to work late, so he calls Jane on his video phone to tell her he won’t be home in time for dinner. She shows him a picture of new earrings she wants for her birthday, and when he hangs up, an ad for a jewelry store pops up. After Mr. Spacely lets him go, he taps a few times on his screen and hops in his flying car, where a trailer for a new movie begins to play, asking if he’d like directions to the space drive-in. Once he gets home (and stops that crazy thing), the lights are on, the temperature is just right and the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle has already whipped up a perfect prime rib dinner.
“Welcome home, Mr. Jetson!” Rosie says. “You look more tired than usual. Would you like me to order a case of Pick-Me-Up caffeine pills? They come in your favorite flavor now!”
You can practically see George’s comically animated reaction. In 1962, we would have laughed at such targeted, intrusive advertising, as if companies were somehow able to eavesdrop on every aspect of our lives and know exactly what were thinking before the thought even appeared.
But the closer we get the less funny it seems. It’s become generally accepted that the words we plug into search fields automatically become fodder for advertisers, and Google has turned its world-class algorithm into a billion-dollar ad machine. We barely even notice anymore; after researching a recent column on the rumored deal between Apple and Beats, I ignored a couple of days worth of banner and billboard ads for headphones before I even realized why they were there. No matter how trivial, every search we make is a commodity, and it’s big business.
So, no one was surprised when a letter from Google to the Securities and Exchange Commission surfaced last week that inadvertently outlined its rather diabolical intentions for mobile ads:
“In a short period of time, the meaning of ‘mobile’ at Google has shifted dramatically to ‘handset’ from ‘tablet + handset.’ We expect the definition of ‘mobile’ to continue to evolve as more and more ‘smart’ devices gain traction in the market. For example, a few years from now, we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses and watches, to name just a few possibilities.”
The “thermostats” bit in particular raised eyebrows due to Google’s recent purchase of Nest, and while both companies were quick to squash any supposition, the seed had already been planted: Any connected screen in our lives will eventually be a target for ads, and the vision of our homes becoming inundated with pop-ups is that much closer to reality.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite as oppressive and dystopian as we fear.
If Google has learned anything from its platform war with Apple, it’s that user interfaces and experiences matter. Not only has Android matured into a sleek, viable alternative to iOS, Google has paid just as much attention to its mobile and web apps, crafting a polished, refined suite of services that are among the best in their class. As Google expands Android to the various other screens in our lives, we can expect the same sharp focus on UX, especially if it wants to compete with Apple in this space. And that includes the ads that will inevitably be part of it.
It might not subscribe to the same meticulous standards as Apple does in the advertising department, but Google has taken a relatively friendly tack with Android, stopping short of developing any overly invasive or irritating campaigns, with the most offensive requiring an extra swipe to get past a set of sponsored search results. Even in apps, where there’s a far greater opportunity to barrage users with ads, Google has kept the experience as pleasant as it can be—aside from some resolution issues, its in-app banners aren’t any more or less appealing than Apple’s own iAds.
But these new generation of screens will require a whole new set of guidelines. Random banner ads on our wrists or thermostats is a less-than-ideal scenario, and if Android Wear is any indication, the Google-powered home will adhere to a different criteria than KitKat. Google’s wearable platform is already designed to be a more elegant system that moves and adapts to each user’s life, and with it will surely come a new platform for ads that eschews traditional methods and puts a unique spin on a necessary evil.
Assuming our refrigerators aren’t watching every move we make, our direct interaction with these screens in our homes is going to be fairly limited. Nest’s intelligent system has made it so we barely need to physically adjust the thermostat at all, and now that it’s under Google’s umbrella, it seems inevitable that the team will have a hand in whatever iteration of Android lands on this new class of appliances.
Perhaps that was the main impetus for buying Nest all along. Google hasn’t shown more than a passing interest in hardware, and it seems unlikely that it’s going to suddenly release a line of Android-based home products. But Nest’s appeal isn’t just in the slick transformation of ugly household necessities—Tony Fadell and his team has built a new kind of mobile interface, one that operates independently of our touch, relying on gestures and artificial intelligence to basically run itself.
So we can probably trust Google when it says there won’t be ads on Nest’s current model of thermostat—and there’s a good chance there never will be. As our homes get smarter, those sleek high-tech dials will likely disappear completely, replaced by mini tablet-sized screens that control everything from temperature to timers, but any ad delivery system will need to walk the fine line between practical and aggravating, a threshold that will be much lower in our kitchens than it is on our phones.
A smart home platform from Google would be radically different than anything we’ve used on a mobile device. For one, we won’t need nearly as many apps, and our searches will be much more specialized: When we’re standing in front of our refrigerators or microwaves, for example, there’s a good chance we’ll be looking for recipes.
With advancements in voice recognition from the likes of Siri and Google Now, however, we probably won’t be plugging away at virtual keyboards and scrolling through search results, which seriously cuts down on the viability of AdWords as an option. If we’re going to be talking to our appliances, they’re going to be talking back, and while Google hasn’t really explored the concept of conversational ads, it might be a way to get our attention without flashing banners in our face. Think of it like Her’s Samantha, if she happened to occasionally sell you stuff.
It might seem creepy at first, but it would be much less obtrusive and garish than banners or pop-ups that force us to interact with them. If we ask it to raise the temperature on our Nest thermostat on a cold day, it could casually suggest a Southwest flight to Turks and Caicos. Eventually, we would just tune out the ads that don’t pertain to our lives, not unlike the ones automatically generated by our searches (though a degree of humanity would make us more inclined to at least say no). Similar to Pandora, it would learn what we like and dislike, and at times it could be downright useful: If we’re making a romantic dinner, it could suggest some appropriate music, or if we’re missing an ingredient, it could direct us to a store nearby that has it on sale.
No one wants to deal with ads, but as our lives continue to shift away from print and live television, advertisers will closely followed. Google’s ads-everywhere strategy might seem like a bleak Orwellian vision of the future, but it doesn’t have to be. With a reimagined effort that eliminates the intrusion and focuses on the experience, the ads on the devices in our homes could keep us more connected without driving us mad or cluttering our screens.
At least until you slip on your Google Glass, anyway.