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Talking About Ads In Self-Driving Cars: Let’s Slow Down

Marketers may be eager to dive into potential ad opportunities — but questions remain on logistics and ethics.

If Elon Musk is to be believed, driverless cars will be as common as operatorless elevators in the near future. Rather than spending an average of two hours a day staring out their windshield at the asphalt, drivers now have an extra two hours to spend on their phones or tablets, reading, or, in the hopes of some marketers, being served ads. But is that really the best way to reach consumers in self-driving cars?

A TechCrunch article from this past weekend explored the idea in full, arguing that the standardized advertisements seen in mass public transportation like trains and buses will be inadequate and that personalized ads are the best way to advertise to consumers in driverless cars. But let’s slow down a bit. Are driverless cars really comparable to public transportation? Tony Bailey, SVP, Technology at DigitasLBi doesn’t think so. For one, we don’t even have a clear view of how these ads would be served: an in-car dashboard display? A companion phone app?

“We went through kind of this same thing with wearables,” Bailey said. “Everyone was so excited about the possibility for advertising and how we’re going to serve ads on this cool new platform, but no consumer is going to say ‘I got this new Apple Watch and I can’t wait to see an ad on it’ and it’s the same for self driving cars.”

While it may be tempting to blast consumers with ads wherever and whenever they can see them, brands and marketers have to be careful about relevance. An intrusive or annoying ad won’t just be ineffective; it can be actively detrimental to a brand’s perception in the consumer mind. If you do want to advertise in a self-driving car, it has to be smooth enough and provide enough value that enhances the experience, not merely coexist with it.

“For advertising in cars, the consumer is looking for marketing that offers a real benefit – it needs to be targeted and relevant,” said Joe Migliozzi, Managing Director of Shop+ at Mindshare. “The ads cannot be forced onto the consumer – for instance, you shouldn’t have screens in the car that won’t shut off. Instead, the ads need to be built into the organic experience inside the car – for example, a tablet or TV that the consumer can watch for business or entertainment.”

Assuming that driverless cars do become a reality, however, the ethical nature of in-car advertisements isn’t the only concern. Any retailer who relies on out-of-home or similar advertising campaigns needs to be aware of how a driver not being in control of their car affects their foot traffic.

“Self-driving cars taking away one very important behavior: spontaneity,” Bailey told GeoMarketing. “They’re going to be the ones most interested in the ad opportunities. They’re going to want to get the same feeling from people of “oh while I’m out I should stop here and pick some stuff up” or “I’m hungry, that place on the side of the road looks good” without them having their hands on the wheel.“

If commuter behavior on the subway is any indication, driverless car users will likely plug in their destinations and then stare at their phones until they arrive. In that case, billboards and other out-of-home advertisements (including the wacky inflatable tube guys outside car dealerships) are out the window. Sponsored points of interest on GPS apps like Waze are one way spontaneity could live on, but much depends on whatever system the consumer’s car is powered by, whether that’s Google, Tesla, or whichever other companies start producing their own driverless vehicles.

About The Author
Daniel Parisi Daniel Parisi @daniel_parisi_

Daniel Parisi is a New York City-based writer and recent graduate of the University of Maryland. Daniel specializes in coverage of mobile payments, loyalty programs, and the Internet of Things.