The metaverse is brought to you by…
Hard day in The Sandbox? Have you been in a gas war for a land parcel? Were other avatars invading your personal digital bubble? You glance at your Rødex Bitmariner. When will it be time for the cool, crisp taste of a Coke?
Crack open a non-fungible bottle: Coca-Cola has already entered the metaverse, with both an NFT drop and the recent launch of a “pixel-flavored” virtual soft drink called Zero Sugar Byte. Plenty of other brands are rushing in. “Metaverse advertising” was one the most popular search terms on Google Trends for 11 of the last 90 days. And why not? This advertising market, referred to as VDOOH (virtual digital out-of-home), is said to be part of the lucrative DOOH space, estimated to be worth $50 billion by 2026.
Spawning into the blockchain-powered virtual worlds Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space can feel like the blissful early days of the Net when the snowy screech of a dial-up modem heralded the entrance into a free and open web of possibilities. But could we end up like the Axiom spaceship in “Wall-E,” floating around on our hoverchairs and consuming Buy n Large ads all day? Or might the advertisers spend billions to shill their wares to ghost towns, as with “SecondLife?”
The Future is Programmable
Artur Sychov, Founder and CEO of Somnium Space, arrives for our Zoom in an NFT skin that’s a dead ringer for a Tron light suit. While he walks and sometimes flies through Sominum’s Lorax-like pink and purple palm trees, he explains that users post billboards as images on their land parcels all the time.
A lifelike digital storm rolls through some virtual green plains, while he continues chatting: In Somnium, NFT-powered billboards are run by Admix, who will pre-load them with images from their own advertisers, as opposed to users finding advertisers themselves. “You have the revenue share with Admix and you get paid, and you get paid quite a lot,” he says.
He climbs into his NFT car and drives over to a yet-to-be-opened nightclub, where he sidles up to a bar. “In Somnium, you can program a drink and then your vision will start to blur, mimicking that you are drunk. You can program beverages to have all kinds of effects.”
Food and beverage, which seems like a moot point in the metaverse, could offer some interesting immersive experiences, especially as VR develops. You can already get a virtual pilsner at the Miller Lite bar in Decentraland, where this summer there will also be a Jose Cuervo distillery. Almond Breeze recently dubbed its APEFUEL, “The official beverage of the metaverse” via an NFT drop created by TBWA Chiat Day.
Michael Litman, Senior Director, Web3 and NFTs at Media.Monks, sees a huge opportunity for luxury beverage companies in particular. “NFTs allow them to educate their fans on scarcity or provenance. They’re not just serving the drink anymore, they’re creating a brand halo.” He often thinks about brands creating their own tokens that serve as loyalty programs for their fans, like American Express did. My Coke Rewards, anyone? “It’s not business as usual. I say we’re entering the Imagination Age. We shouldn’t just copy reality – that’s not a good idea.”
Or is it? At one point during my call with Sychov, he used a teleportation hub. “They’re all free now,” he explained, “But that will change. Soon, you’ll either teleport for a small fee in Somnium CUBEs, which is our utility token, or you watch an ad on that screen for maybe five seconds and then you teleport for free.”
Hey, haven’t we seen this all before?
Your Life Will Play After This 30 Second Ad
“Over the years, many advertisers have always followed the same interruptive model,” Ed Timke, a cultural historian of advertising told me. He brought up the early days of radio when the host would tack on a “This show is brought to you by…” Television adopted this model–with the viewer having no choice but to sit through the ads–and then, forty years later, access to the World Wide Web was provided through ad-supported ISPs (Juno and NetZero, anyone?). Banner ads followed, along with one of the most abhorred forms of advertising of all time: the pop-up. Streaming media like Hulu, Netflix and YouTube were also teleport hub predecessors: You could watch an ad before your show or video instead of paying for it.
Sometimes advertising gets sneaky, and we don’t know we were seeing an ad. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays (a key figure in the history of public relations) sold Lucky Strike cigarettes by hiring women to publicly smoke during an Easter Day Parade as part of a “Torches of Freedom” campaign targeting feminists. Later in the twentieth century, E.T. munched on Reeses Pieces and Wayne and Garth vowed not to “bow to any sponsor” while blatantly eating Pizza Hut and Doritos, donning Reebok and popping Nuprin. In 2015, the final episode of Mad Men aired: “I’d like to Buy The World a Coke.” Advertisers are like water–they always find a way in.
A lot depends on whether we have a closed metaverse or one ruled by Mr. Zuckerberg. Because he will certainly use all the data collection–which will be ten to a hundred times more than the current Web–to send you really annoying advertising that will float in front of your eyes.
— Van Rijmenam
Song Breaker Awards Roblox Entrance Area
Send in the Replicants
Mark van Rijmenam, author of “Step Into The Metaverse: How the Immersive Internet Will Unlock a Trillion-Dollar Social Economy,” has a lot of concerns about metaverse advertising. One of them is users that could clone actual people and pass themselves off. “We know deepfakes, where we can have Queen Elizabeth, Obama or Zelensky saying something, made with real footage. Right now, I’m in the process of creating an exact digital replica of myself, and if I can do it, so can someone trying to be a fake ‘me.’ But I’m not a world leader or CEO. Bots will be a humongous problem,” he told me.
The AI company Hour One is already creating synthetic characters based on real life people. Questions abound: will people be informed when they are dealing with a bot, and what will they try to sell us, or take from us?
Hannah Taylor, Partner and Co-Chair of the Blockchain and Advertising Groups at Frankfurt, Kurnit, Klein & Selz informed me that California has instituted a bot law the effects of which are already visible. “You see this a lot in the chatbot context, like in an airline portal, where they usually say something like, ‘Hi, I’m Hannah, a digital assistant here to help you.’ It’s required by law in certain contexts to disclose that you are not human.” But what if you don’t disclose that you’re a bot? Are we going to have Blade Runners patrolling the metaverse in trench coats?
Van Rijmenam brought up another example: Say there’s a comedy show in the metaverse, and the comedian is wearing a Hugo Boss jacket. If the comedian earns affiliate money to wear (and drive potential buyers to) that jacket, then when an avatar clicks on it, a link would appear to purchase it. CGI influencers in the metaverse actually aren’t new: Lil Miquela, Shudu and Imma have already made deals with Calvin Klein, Valentino and Dior.
“People may think,” Taylor said, “‘we’ll create virtual influencers and because they’re not human, we’ll be able to get away with new stuff.’ And the law says, ‘no.’ CGI influencers raise the same issues. It’s just that the law is a tortoise and tech is a hare, and we as lawyers are left to apply the law of other contexts to this new universe.”
How will synthetic people disclose their intentions? Sychov thinks they’ll announce themselves in the beginning of their dialogue but believes that any company taking themselves seriously will have real humans greeting visitors. Historian Ed Timke wonders if bots or influencers should have halos or money signs, the Web3 equivalents of a #sponsoredpost.
The Law is a Tortoise and Tech is a Hare
In 1968, Vermont banned billboards to preserve the state’s natural beauty; today, drive into New Hampshire and you’ll experience the difference. As the quilt of the metaverse sews itself together, regulation and borders could prove difficult to manage.
“A lot depends on whether we have a closed metaverse or one ruled by Mr. Zuckerberg,” Van Rijmenam observed. “Because he will certainly use all the data collection–which will be ten to a hundred times more than the current Web–to send you really annoying advertising that will float in front of your eyes, or if you are driving into a virtual city and you look at a distant billboard and your VR eye sensors recognize that you look two seconds longer than normal people, then all of a sudden it pops up and blows up into your face. And that’s all possible, because with eye tracking, we can know where you look.”
Instagram already employs a version of this technology, delivering you images similar to other images that you’ve lingered on – even if that content is unwanted or upsetting.
Rijmenam noted, “It’s also possible to notice a user’s eyes as they slightly dilate, or whether someone blinks a second more or faster, and all of these things that say something about you and about your personality, about as a person who you are, what your preferences are.” To his point, Financial Times recently identified dozens of Meta patents seeking to harvest biometric data, one of which uses facial expressions to determine what content the user will see. With Meta’s Oculus 3 due out soon, and a raft of new VR headsets expected out this year, we must consider the terms of service.
In Web3, could the same openness we had at the advent of the Internet enable a new kind of monopolistic power? “It’s almost like we’re going back to the late 1950s where we have a pocket of people worried they’re being manipulated,” Timke said, referring to the psychological tactics used by advertisers, as well as Cold War propaganda. “Are we being manipulated [now] by a handful of people in Silicon valley doing A/B testing on these ads and social media?”
“If we don’t pay attention as a society, then the Zuckerbergs of the world will control our digital lives,” Van Rijmenam said.
Imaged used with permission from Admix
From Netiquette to Metaquette
Back to that Coca-Cola. If Don Draper’s “Hilltop” moment in “Mad Men” was a response to the hippie-fied 1960s–that the Baby Boomer counterculture was ready for a tall glass of Coke-fueled capitalism–is Web3 primed for a Kool Aid man-through-a-brick wall-kind of awakening?
It’s too soon to say whether we’ll have more Times Squares or ad-blocked public squares, an Imagination Age or an i-Commerce one, or where our eyeballs will go. Taylor said, “I can totally see a future where these places are overrun, but they also have to make sure that people want to go there. As a consumer, I think you’re unlikely to want to interact in a world where you’re flooded with crappy content.”
Or… are we overthinking this? Sometimes advertisements are delightful and inspiring–what about the Super Bowl or the Apple Think Different commercials or Nike’s Colin Kaepernick spot? Surely, the metaverse will have its shocks of brilliance too. Sychov is thrilled by the possibilities of full immersion; he laid out a scenario for me: “You would come into the CocaCola world and you would drink that drink. It would make some cool effect and if you experienced this in VR, you would never forget it.”
And it’s easy to imagine. Because avatars and cryptocars, and dipping into a digital cafe with a friend to wait out the virtual rainstorm seems fun. Oh, and here’s the bot waiter selling us on Zero Sugar Byte: “Its bright upfront is reminiscent of powering up a game, inviting you to explore what pixels might taste like…”
Do we wonder if he’s real, paid or cloned? Or does “tasting pixels” have more pull? Will we really just want to drink the Coke?
Will the taste of a cool crisp coke or an ice cold beer still taste as sweet in the metaverse? Let’s find out.