‘Messaging’ Is Obsolete

By now you’ve probably seen The Wilderness Downtown, the Arcade Fire video directed by Chris Milk. It’s been out a few months now—which in Internet time is like three years. It might as well be the dancing baby from Ally McBeal.
But take another look. It’s amazing. The song’s killer, which helps. The video itself is also well shot, brilliantly executed, and it does incredible things with new technology. (It was optimized for the Chrome browser and made with HTML 5.)

The part that seems to amaze people the most is when their home address becomes part of the story. But what about the different browser windows that appear and vanish with the music as the story advances? Or the part where you type or draw advice to your childhood self, and then that advice animates throughout the video?
The Wilderness Downtown gives us a peek at how technology is going to change the way we experience entertainment. What it means to be a viewer vs. a participant. And the way we make and experience advertising.
First, let’s look at entertainment in general. If you’re an aspiring director, you don’t need to spend summers mowing lawns or sleeping with rich girls anymore. Because you don’t need thousands of dollars for production gear. You just need is a decent laptop. You can scout locations with Google street view, which makes choosing the perfect backdrop for that bank robbery scene, blocking out the action, and framing the shot as easy as typing in an address. For animation effects, copies of Flash and After Effects can be had for a little more than a grand. Add in a green screen and some stock film clips, and you can put your actors literally anywhere.
Come to think of it, soon you may not even need actors at all. Next Media in Hong Kong, for instance, animates the news of the day. So rather than watching video of a reporter standing in someone’s front yard (yawn), they create animation reenacting what happened (or, in some cases, what’s believed to have happened). That’s how, despite no cameras being there, we got to watch Tiger Woods drive his car into an oak tree. That video got 2.5 million views, by the way.
Similarly, Xtranormal.com lets users type in dialogue and choose characters to create an instant animated short. How long until users can put themselves—or any famous person, for that matter—in a movie just by mapping a face onto an avatar? Oddcast already has that technology, and it’s getting better at it every day.
And don’t forget machinima, the newest form of cinema, where all you need to make a movie is a game console. Red vs. Blue uses footage from Halo in multiplayer mode. Add some dialogue, a little movement and a plot and you’ve got a TV series. About to go into its ninth season, the show is popular enough to warrant a release on DVD. And it’s not just for fanboys: Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, has described Red vs. Blue as “truly as sophisticated as Samuel Beckett.”
So what does this mean for the advertising business? For starters, it’s getting harder to tell clients that it’s impossible to produce a commercial for less than half a million dollars. It also means a “commercial” had better be more than just a piece of film: It better be a customized experience for every single user.
We’d also better make sure that what we produce is moving and amazing, because the cost of entry is nothing. We’re not just competing against other advertising—or movie studios, TV pilots, or any other typical attention hogs. Our competition now is any high-school kid with time on his hands and a good idea. Because with a decent Internet connection, he can make the same stuff we do.
Not everything will be amazing, of course. Just like now, the vast majority will be painfully average. But “average” is getting more sophisticated, more imaginative and more immersive by the minute. Art builds on itself, and the more stuff there is to build on, the more exponentially better it gets.
So, just as you wouldn’t accept even the crappiest movie monster being a sweaty guy zipped into a rubber suit, soon you might not be able to stomach just watching a straight-ahead video. It’s too easy to make something better. If it doesn’t do something, why bother? What’s “video” going to be like when the screen on your computer/TV/phone/whatever-it-is recognizes your face (iPhoto), responds to your touch (iPad), reacts to your movements (Kinect) or knows where you are (cell phone)?
According to Forrester, almost 40 percent of advertisers plan to spend more money next year on branded entertainment than on traditional TV advertising. That number will only go up. And it means more and more companies understand that creating something interesting can be a lot more lucrative than interrupting their way into relevance, no matter how good their TV spots are.
So what happens when what’s interesting isn’t what marketers tell people, it’s the worlds we build for them? We’re about to find out.

Carlos Ricque is gcd at Moxie Interactive in Atlanta.