Each t-shirt had a simple panel stuck to the fabric that felt just a little bit thicker than the cotton shirt around it. A short animated sequence was playing on each t-shirt in full color. There were no wires, power packs or anything else computerized. Just a soft, malleable surface playing eight second loops on the front of the shirts.
The design potential of this obvious, the advertising potential is at once exciting and frightening. How long will it be before our wardrobe turns us all into moving billboards?
My first reaction to this prospect was to say we would never let it happen. Yet we’re pretty far down that slippery slope already. The tiny penguins, polo players and alligators that grace polo shirts seemed positively innocuous compared to the paintball splatter of Gucci, Prada and Fendi logos all over handbags, t-shirts and shoes. And a glance at any streetwear spread shows people looking more like composites of the “coolest” brands rather than anything authentic to themselves (Ed Hardy, Diesel, Abercrombie & Fitch to name a few). I know this to be true because I’m guilty of this myself. As much as I’d like to think I present an authentic expression of “Simon”, I’m really a Diesel wearing, Apple toting, Prius driving mish mash of largely illusory brand promises.
Of course there will always be those that staunchly resist such change. Culture jammers like Adbusters ruthlessly expose the duplicity and dishonesty of advertising; the mayor of Sao Paulo, Gilberto Kassab, recently banned billboards throughout his city; and just a few weeks ago, the Public Ad Campaign organized street teams to whitewash illegal street level billboards across Manhattan.
Yet the drift towards our future as advertising space is as tireless as it is imperceptible. Even the sanctity of intimacy within our social networks is rapidly being defiled. The heads of Microsoft and Facebook debated the very real problems brands face in talking about themselves within social networks at Cannes last week, yet advertising is seeping into every iteration of what we call “me” in the online world. Adjix pays you to attach ads to your tweets, Amazon gives you a commission for selling products on your blog, Facebook is peppered with ads, and Google Adsense has become the revenue-generating standard on websites.
So is it really that hard to imagine a future where we become moving billboards?
Fashion has always had a wonderful ability to disguise advertising as design, and clothing featuring digital displays will be no exception. The films, animation and effects will be cool, to be sure; they will be executed by artists, animators and auteurs with serious street cred; and, finally, under the guise of funding the dissemination of the arts, Disney, Coke and American Express will come calling, possibly even paying us to propogate their brands.
Should we be upset about this? Or is it really any different to the last fifty years of advertising? Brands have always hijacked pop culture to sell a product. When it’s done well, the advertising is seeded so far out in front of a street culture that its arrival seems organic, natural and inoffensive (that’s the beauty of some much of the great Nike work). Done badly, artists – and whatever idea of their lives they like to project – are crudely exchanged for cash (see P. Diddy for Chiroc and soon Guiness).
We put so much focus on the impact of technology within the online world, it’s easy to forget it changes the offline world in equal measure. T-shirts will become moving billboards in the same way that unique, flesh and blood individuals became a composite of pics, tweets, blogs and lifestreams (aptly named). And as technology continues its accelerating march towards the future, the supporting role played by advertising will follow close behind. It won’t be long before the these t-shirt billboards feature animation that changes in real time specific to where you are and who you are with. And the seduction will be complete once consumers are given a few simple tools to customize their messaging so they feel a semblance of being in control.
As the latest tool to enlist consumers in the service of brands, these t-shirts and nano-technology like it, are not dangerous in themselves. What is dangerous, however, is the degree to which we sacrifice any or all of our sense of selves in the service of advertising. Our most intimate relationships with each other are increasing being commodified and taken to market, trumping the value of the emotional intangibles that are so important to our well-being and happiness. The true value of our connection is exactly that – a sense of caring, belonging and community that is a reward and end in itself. As we enjoy the benefits of enhanced connectivity and tolerate the attending advertising, there must be a point at which all of us, out of necessity and respect for the human condition, declare a part of ourselves as ‘Not for sale’.