Mark Ritson: 'ad-blocker' specs will kill our industry

Mark Ritson
Mark Ritson

How can marketers reach an audience that won't look at their ads? They'll have to work it out, fast, says columnist Mark Ritson in his April Fools' contribution.

You might not have heard of it yet, but Prail Technologies is set to become one of the most famous companies in marketing. The San Francisco-based operation is about to launch a digital filter which, when attached to a pair of spectacles or sunglasses, eradicates any and all advertising messages.

Yes, you read that right. Prail has produced a chip that can recognise advertising messages and then remove them from a person's line of sight using a patented procedure in which ads are digitally blocked from the user's view.

The processor that enables this incredible feat is called OLOF, short for the Optical Limitation Option Filter. Using smart recognition technology, the chip scans the user's line of sight 12 times a second and, when it recognises billboards or print advertising, creates
a calming haze that blocks out the ad without disconcerting the viewer.

Chad Smith, chief executive of Prail, claims the device already filters out more than 90% of all encountered advertising with further improvements planned in 2010. 'We have taken advanced technology originally developed for missile defence, and applied it to one of man's biggest annoyances - advertising,' he said.

I was one of the first people to try out the technology last week and the results are extraordinary. Wearing lightweight OLOF sunglasses transformed a walk down Oxford Street from a cluttered, ad-heavy zoo into a relatively calming, enjoyable amble. The spectacles weigh little more than a regular pair and look no different from sports sunglasses. From Oxford Street, I took the Underground on a Tube devoid of commercial material. Piccadilly Circus station was transformed into a surprisingly calming white space, the escalators were free from invasive ads, and when I left and walked out past the statue of Eros, I was immediately struck by the calming effect of an ad-free Piccadilly Circus.

One safety concern is taxis covered with advertising, which are rendered partially invisible by OLOF and led to a couple of close calls for me when crossing Bond Street. Apparently Prail is aware of the issue and when the retail version of the OLOF glasses launches later this month they will render all cabs in a distinct, but ad-free, black.

The performance of these spectacles is perhaps even more impressive when you try reading a newspaper or watching TV. The OLOF device is
able to filter out almost all newspaper advertising. Pages with ads are turned into a slightly blurry blue colour, leaving you to focus on the editorial content. The effect is the same for TV, but obviously requires the judicious use of the mute button to achieve an ad-free evening.

With the spectacles about to go on sale in the UK, a stark choice now confronts ad agencies and major advertisers. Either accept that OLOF
is the 'killer app' that makes most advertising ineffective and change to a PR or sales-promotions focus, or operate on the assumption that some minority of the population will still prefer a world with advertising, and work with these smaller target audiences to craft more specific, boutique advertising campaigns.

There are still hopes of a counter-response from the ad industry in which it will create anti-OLOF creative work. Unfortunately, reports earlier this month that Dentsu, the Japanese agency group, had discovered a way of evading the OLOF filter, have turned out to be nothing more than a cruel hoax. It appears that today's date marks a new chapter in the history of marketing communications

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing and consultant to some of the world's leading brands

30 seconds on Prail sunglasses

  • OLOF-powered spectacles will be available with a retail price of between £250 and £400. They can be used with standard prescription lenses as well as sunglasses.
  • Prail is currently predicting UK sales of 2m pairs by
  • the end of this year and estimates that eventually about 70% of the UK population will own and
  • use a pair of the spectacles. During an initial trial in the Swedish town of Fjul, researchers found that 85% of the population of the town opted to wear the OLOF spectacles on a daily basis.
  • According to April Day, head of planning at US agency Johnson, Foster and Hernandez: 'There is very little that agencies can do about the OLOF revolution, except, perhaps, ramp down their reach and frequency numbers. It's all very depressing.'
  • Consumer rights groups have welcomed the innovation. According to citizens' rights group Freedom UK, the
  • OLOF device is set to be a 'liberating technology for millions'.



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