Advertising is being tested in VR – it’s not working, so what is the future?

Image by SUPERMAO | Bigstockphoto

Advertising in VR just felt wrong. From the moment that Facebook announced that it was going to trial adverting in a third-party VR game, we were waiting for the backlash.

And it came. Games provider Resolution Games agreed to trial adverts in its ‘Blaston’ game and withdrew it as a result of a lot of abuse from users.

Subsequently, Resolution ‘clarified’ that it will still trial VR advertising in one of its free games, ‘Bait’, at some later date.

While this advertising trial was just that, it brings up some important questions about VR, advertising and evolving digital business models.

First, right now, placing adverts in VR just doesn’t feel right. Unless you are used to it, VR is slightly disorientating. Your brain knows that you are in your Living Room, but your mind is busy chasing and killing bad guys. Having that experience paused for an advert for toothpaste will screw with your sanity, without a doubt.

Secondly, advertising is about to change dramatically, again. We are moving to a world beyond cookies, a world where customers’ privacy is paramount and customers are taking control of digital consumption of all kinds. Companies are already rolling out products that cater to a world where you have to serve adverts to an anonymised audience but with a high degree of relevance and accuracy. And that could go badly wrong if not done right.

Track records and conventional wisdom support the theory that companies whose livelihoods depend on advertising will get it wrong but still survive.

However much we like to think we have control over what we see as consumers bears little relationship with what actually happens. It is how progress works. If a huge technology company wants to serve adverts in certain ways and is serious about it, the likelihood is that we will get used to it. When banks introduced the ATM to cut costs, the backlash was huge – we all hated not going into a bank branch and writing out a cheque (said the sad old hack baffled by new technology). Yet, here we are. We never go into the branch of a bank.

Thirdly, it will be very interesting indeed to watch what happens if and when Resolution goes ahead with the advertising trial in its free game.

If customers accept advertising in a free game, then the business model that underpins the internet holds true. If it does not, then it will be the canary that tells us it is time to change.

This small advertising experiment (which we would not have noticed if it was anyone but Facebook) might be small. Still, it will give us a guide as to whether advertising has a future in anything like its current form or whether the world will move to something else – a ubiquitous subscription economy, for instance.

Remember, too, that this trial does not mean that Facebook is convinced about advertising and VR working together. The company is also trialling advertising in Instagram Reels and launching a host of new forums and chat tools that they will try and monetise soon.

Whatever the future of advertising might be, the decisions made in the next few months look as if they will determine what that future looks like.

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