The Immersive Narratives: Advertising, Engagement, and Storytelling panel was held at Baruch’s Performing Arts Center on Thursday, April 7, 2016. It featured three panelists—two from within the advertising industry, and one media professor.
At the heart of the presentations and discussions was the concept of immersion and participation in media—how viewers and consumers are no longer just passive audience members. To illustrate this contrast, the first speaker, Aina Abiodun, Director of Strategy of Sideways, Inc and Co-Founder of StoryCode, showed a photograph of a movie audience from the earlier part of the century. Everyone was sitting still and watching the screen. She then compared this to a photo of an audience at the Rocky Horror Picture show, dressed in drag, singing along to the music, and actively participating in the production. While a great deal more interactive than the earlier photograph, this level of immersion is far from where the story ends. Today, virtual reality and other immersive technologies have brought about a level of engagement, interaction, and reach never before possible. Some have suggested that these innovative technologies have the ability to bridge nearly all gaps in humanity, and to connect and humanize people from the furthest-flung worlds, whether geographical, social, political, or economic. Abiodun, however, criticizes this view; citing the recent virtual reality project that allowed wealthy Westerners to “experience” Syrain refugee camps, she questioned whether this was actually humanizing the Syrians in plight, or making them more exotic while appeasing the viewers’ sense of duty without real action.
Abiodun’s critical approach to these experiences brought into focus questions of consent and immersion vs. invasion.
The next speaker, Beat Baudenbacher, Chief Creative Officer at LoyalKaspar, presented his approach to creating immersive advertising experiences for consumers and viewers of his ads. The limiting factor on consumption, he explained, was no longer media or access, but rather by consumers’ attention. There is so much content available and omnipresent that his challenge is to distract a consumer so that they pay attention to the ad in question. Presenting a slide of a yellow rubber ducky floating across the page, Baudenbacher spoke of his goal as attracting that duck to his particular pool of water. While far from dangerous or damaging, I couldn’t help but think of the efforts Baudenbacher described as a fight for the consumer’s attention—by hook or by crook, not necessarily with their informed consent. Having one’s attention grabbed by a highly stylized advertisement is a far cry from Syrian childen being viewed via virtual reality without their real knowledge or consent of these actions, but the question of who exactly has the control is a common thread between the two situations.
David Carroll, PhD, media professor at Parsons School for Design, took the question of consent and invasion as opposed to immersion to a deeper level by discussing online advertising. This technology, he suggested, has been a blight on the advertising industry. Diving in the pervasive reach that online advertisers have to track users and report on their activity, Carroll pointed out the myriad bad practices that take place across the internet and the steps millions have taken to block them. Users are increasingly trying, as best they can, to control their privacy. The irony, Carroll pointed out, is that users are not even totally unwilling to share access to some of their information; the advertising technology has simply gone too far for users’ comfort, where it could have saved itself enormous amounts of effort and money by adhering to a few simple standards. At the moment, it may be too late for them to recover.
While this event was not necessarily directly related to digital humanities, it offered an interesting perspective on media and the ways that consumers and people interact with it. Similar problems of “content fatigue” and information overload, leading to limits on consumption, also affect the humanities fields and academia as a whole. The critical approach to examining content—both its creation and its dissemination—presented in this discussion, should be welcome in every field.