We’re Finally on the Eve of the Virtual Reality Era, and Here’s Why That Scares Marketers

No room for the old ad model in this brave new world

No single descriptor can consistently apply to the living, breathing and evolving South by Southwest Interactive Festival—except that it is as weird as Austin itself.

Every year, the attendance grows and demographics shift. Every year the tone changes. What doesn't change is the importance of what SXSW really is: the greatest environment for creative happenstance and ambitious serendipity that ever happens at a convention center. People from brands, agencies, publishers, media, entrepreneurs,  start-ups and everything in-between can co-mingle in an atmosphere of inspiration.

That's the real magic.

VR at SXSW 2016 Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

SXSW's darling this year was not an app, it was virtual reality. The obvious players like Samsung, Google, IBM and Dell were there, as well as the less obvious, like McDonald's. Some turn up their noses at the mention of VR, already considering it passé, but VR was the catalyst for one of the most interesting and terrifying marketing conversations I heard, multiple times, in Austin.

This apocalyptic talk was about the "new world" of media, where viewers redirect their attention to experiences that no longer have ads, potentially leaving the traditional advertising model completely behind. Consumers will be blasting off to far-away planets that may not even have the atmosphere to support ads, and the industry's concern is that this will leave a barren Tatooine-esque advertising wasteland. 

What is exciting to consumers—whole new ad-free worlds where the traditional paradigm has broken down—is terrifying to the marketers and advertisers that must try to follow them to these distant planets. VR and AR are just the first two escape pods, and by next year at SXSW we'll be talking about even more new ways of interacting with content.

The challenges for marketers in the new world will be endless: content production is intrinsically different as the experience changes from linear to lateral in a multi-sensory environment. And the fundamental question for brands is existential: How should they be present in such a space, why should they be there? Or is there no room for them at all?

This shift challenges the thinking behind the entire industry and the current model of the relationship between brands, creative, media and platforms. Why are we afraid of the novel and different? Why are we holding onto the old ways with such tenacity? Instead of trying to terraform Venus—that is, shoehorning "tried-and-true" methods into new and disparate technologies—why not train ourselves to breathe that air? The real question should be: how do we produce fresh, engaging content at costs that are viable?

Maybe my head is in space a bit after hearing astronaut Ron Garan speak at SXSW on Sunday, but I'm taking an orbital view of the problem. It's not time to abandon Spaceship Earth or traditional advertising methods, but we need to get all sides of the industry working together to innovate experiences and ensure viewers will always have a home planet they are comfortable on. At the same time, we need to be setting aside the talent and budget to experiment with the experiences that are to come, and VR and AR are just the beginning.


Immersive, virtual worlds are not nearly as far away as you think and will be upon us before we know it. They provide unique challenges to content creators, viewers and advertisers alike, and their radical newness is a bright light that exposes some of the most insidious faults in our industry.

As marketers and advertisers, we must rise to this challenge. Experimentation must begin now to have a chance at being ready when consumers have lift-off. Some brands are already getting out there: I painted a custom McDonald's Happy Meal box with a VR set just yesterday.

It may not be their killer app, but it's a great first step into the great VR beyond. 

David Shing (@shingy) is AOL's Digital Prophet