Opinion

Spotting bushfires and helping the lonely feels more virtual than reality

Increasingly, agencies and advertisers are turning to tech 'prototypes' which get either limited runs or never see the light of day to shift product. But as the seriousness of real-life problems they address escalates, Mumbrella asks if this is really the future of marketing?

There is a curious and growing trend in the world of advertising, taking prototypes and launching them with all the fanfare of a fully proven, ready to buy product.

A product that doesn’t exist, or is so limited in its availability it may as well not.

Medibank hopes to alleviate loneliness with VR devices

Medibank hopes to alleviate loneliness with VR devices

In the past they have been campaigns aimed at consumer products – in the last couple of years we’ve seen weather predicting pegs and internet interrupting pepper grinders flogging washing powder and pasta sauce – harmless enough.

But what concerns me is the recent spate of offerings purporting to pedal products and prototypes as solutions to life threatening situations and issues where there is genuine despair.

This year Grey Singapore pedalled hope with its I Sea app, claiming to crowd source the hunt for refugees and help co-ordinate rescues. The scam won metal at Cannes before the agency finally handed the award back admitting the app was vapourware.

Saatchi’s idea of a mobile phone driven emergency beacon network marketing Toyota is great in theory, but the government is never likely to release the valuable phone spectrum to make it real.

Last year VML’s Blackspot Beacons proved another idea so far ahead of its time, the client never even signed off on the award entry.

And earlier this year Samsung launched pocket Patrol, an augmented reality app supposed to help people spot dangers in the surf such as rips using their phone – it works on only two beaches in Queensland.

This week, in the course of a couple of hours, two of Australia’s best known brands announced they were alleviating the loneliness of long term hospital patients and spotting bushfires before they got out of control.

Medibank announced it was bringing “Joy” to the lives of those in hospital with virtual reality devices which would allow people to immerse themselves in a colourful world surround by storytelling friends – and, for some reason, a dog.

A video released to support the initiative showed people laughing and commenting in amazement as relatives delivered the Google Daydream VR devices to their bedsides, the idea being to alleviate the loneliness of long-term patients.

The video is also being used to urge people to visit loved ones in hospital.

On the face of it, it’s  a wonderful, uplifting story of transporting the old and infirm from their hospital beds using cutting edge technology.

Elsewhere the NRMA announced a network of smoke detectors dotted through the Australian bush, sniffing the air for tell tale smoke long before the flames take hold, giving firefighters a head start and protecting communities.

If only it were true.

On both counts these are campaigns aimed more at earned media and earned awards than promoting anything more than a prototype. They pedal false hope.

Ad agency B.B.E admitted there are just four of Medibank’s ‘Joy’ devices spread throughout the country and no word on when there will be more. Even the content is locked away, available only to those who, doubtless having queued to get into a hospital bed, must now queue to escape it virtually.

So Medibank, with a profit of $416m last financial year, has so far splashed out for just four of the Google Pixel phones costing $649 a piece, with Google throwing in the Daydream viewer for free.

Intriguingly, Mediabank’s marketing director was being offered up for interview until Mumbrella asked if the campaign was a stunt, at which point her diary suddenly filled up.

The NRMA’s FireBlanket is Clever Buoy goes bush. A prototype that is so early in its incubation it hasn’t even earned a whole number yet and is only at stage 0.3.

nrma-fireblanketThe current version has a smoke sniffing range of about 15 kilometres, so it would take a little less than half a million of the devices to cover the 91% of the country that is bushland.

If it were to cover the 10% of the population living in bushfire prone areas that number might drop to around 46,000.

It was an idea cooked up by the NRMA and M&C Saatchi’s innovation department Tricky Jigsaw and is now being validated by the CSIRO’s Data61.

There is no rollout date for the concept and a spokesperson for the NRMA admitted it may not even move past prototype stage.

But that matters little, because Joy and FireBlanket have already served their purpose, garnering acres of unquestioning earned media for Medibank and the NRMA.

On both counts these are ideas with merit. But they are just that: ideas half formed, narrowly delivered and a lifetime away from being real – certainly for those facing a summer of bushfires and those not unlucky enough to be locked away in one of the four hospitals.

The FireBlanket campaign is backed by videos with fancy graphics showing how it will cast a net of safety over communities and pinpoint fires and the direction they are travelling.

The Joy video is filled with old folks looking amazed at what they are seeing – not because of the content within, I’m willing to bet, but because it is likely the first time any of them have been exposed to VR.

They’re impressive looking case study videos which will get them a long way with international award show juries which are time-pressed and ill-equipped to query how many of these things are actually in existence.

Ad agencies and marketers are desperate to be seen at the cutting edge of innovation, but that edge seems to be increasingly focused on awards and earned media, not real stuff. Can award entries for Joy and FireBlanket be far away? AWARD just extended its entry deadline to December 15.

Agencies and their clients are now dabbling in life and death issues. No one is offering to cure cancer yet, but at this rate it surely can’t be far away.

Perhaps the time has come to bite the bullet and introduce a “prototype” category at award shows and award the ideas for what they are, rather than the outcomes for what they are not.

Yes, Pepper Hacker became a real thing (albeit a giveaway of just a couple of thousand) and Clever Buoy continues to receive government research funding as the idea is developed.

But weather predicting pegs and emergency communication beacons tucked into Landcruisers are still the stuff of dreams.

False hope and snake oil. Is this really the prototype for advertising in 2016?

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