ID in the IoT
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ID in the IoT

Is Product Identity the Most Ambitious Public Art Project in History?

Throughout history, in every epoch, the richest and most powerful people have commissioned artwork as a way to memorialize their splendor and burnish their reputations. The Renaissance Popes employed Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante. The Medici Grand Dukes commissioned artwork from Donatello, Bronzino, Brunelleschi and many more. Though few remember the names of their patrons today, the great works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, David, Courbet, Picasso, Matisse and thousands of other artists were similarly supported by the nabobs of their day. In our time, industrialists and bankers amass magnificent collections of fine art and underwrite private museums.

Art is a profession and an industry as well as a creative endeavor. Money is not the only factor that influences the trajectory of art, but it is an important one. When art serves money, it’s usually there to make somebody — or something — look good.

But no era in history has witnessed anything remotely comparable to the sheer volume of artistic and creative talent press-ganged into the glorification of consumer products today.

Globally, 2 million professionals are employed by more than 500,000 advertising agencies that generate in excess of $235 billion in fees annually. But those are just the agencies. There’s a lot more to this equation. If we factor in the spending on media, that figure balloons up to more than $563 billion in 2019. Even that figure is conservative: digital marketing in 2019 is projected to tally $333 billion globally, which according to eMarketer is half of the total worldwide spend on advertising. Then on top of the vast amount spent on advertising agencies and media, we might pile on the other spending on brand-building activities. These include: public relations, consumer promotions, product samples, street marketing, coupons, design, store displays, stadium naming rights and much, much more. Add it all up, and that staggering ad spending figure will surely double again.

What is all this spending for?

The entire advertising industry exists for a single purpose: to stimulate desire. And that happens primarily through pictures, not words.

Manufacturers will spend nearly $1 trillion this year to plant images of desire in your head. That staggering sum exceeds the spending by all the popes, pharaohs, caesars, czars, kaisers and kings of the past on their artistic monuments.

Technologist Jeff Hammerbach, an early Facebook employee, explained his decision to quit that job with this epic statement: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

This grand investment in image-building pays for a lot of stuff that we take for granted. Like television and the Internet. Advertising dollars subsidize and, in the majority of instances, completely underwrite the cost of creating television series and internet content including YouTube videos and mobile apps. Moreover, ad dollars also pay for the physical network infrastructure to distribute those programs.

Today’s advertising images will be delivered to enormous audiences via the most effective communications systems ever devised: broadcast television, multichannel television on satellite and cable, Internet and mobile apps, newspaper and magazine print advertising, billboards, kiosks and more.

Nearly all of this infrastructure is paid for by advertising, with the explicit understanding that it will be used constantly to convey a favorable image of branded goods. Thanks to generous underwriting by the massive image-crafting industry, we now enjoy far more ways to send visual messages than at any previous point in human history.

But wait! Can we really consider a TV commercial for Nike artistic? Is it comparable to, say, Donatello’s David? Preposterous! Outrageous! Yet this wouldn’t seem absurd or outrageous to the Medici family and the other powerbrokers in Florence. Sure, they had a deep and genuine appreciation for transcendent sculpture, but they also had an equally firm grasp of the tools of power. The Medici Grand Dukes would have appreciated the immense power of the modern projected image. And Pope Leo X would have probably dug the fact that television signals extend beyond the solar system.

During the Italian Quattrocento, power was conveyed by commissioning a painter or sculptor to create an artistic rendition of the human form in an allegorical setting as a public embodiment of shared ideals. Today, the purest expression of power is a product logo embedded in an emotionally intense context, projected by electronic media directly into a human mind, in effect colonizing human imagination via saturation marketing campaigns.

There’s nothing new about using images to tell stories. Humanity has been doing this for at least 40,000 years, since the time when remarkably accurate depictions of animals were scratched into cave walls deep in the Dordogne region of France. Crafting and consuming images is something that is deeply ingrained in our psychological makeup. Human beings make images.

When it comes to persuading humans, images enjoy many advantages over words. Images can be more efficient: a rich image will convey far more information faster, and with far less effort on the part of the recipient, and the image is easier to recall. Large scale images connect with huge audiences simultaneously, reaching even those people who cannot read. Images transcend the barriers of culture and language with ease.

And images can be loaded with layers of emotional content and associations that communicate instantly and directly, whereas if one attempted to convey such non-verbal concepts in words, audiences would be obliged to interpret longwinded passages that are complex to decode. Sometimes meaning — and readership — is lost in the process of dealing with text.

Humans are hardwired to prioritize visual cues. This was as true for Cro-Magnon hunters peering vigilantly at fast-moving animals on the distant horizon of the savannah as it is for a teenager searching for porn on a browser. That’s why it’s no accident that marketers and advertisers rely upon images to build brands. An immense amount of emotional content can be compressed into a single image, and the image will speak directly to our unconscious impulses, neatly bypassing the filters of logical reasoning that serve as gateways in the brain.

Images are the most effective way to deliver a massive payload of abstract emotional meaning into the minds of human beings.

No wonder image-crafting is an enormous industry that commands the talents of the best professional designers and art directors. No wonder the biggest brands spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to strategize, plan, produce and broadcast image campaigns.

What is the goal of this frenzy of mass-scale image-crafting and image-projecting? What economic good does all of this activity produce?

The answer is simple. The product of media is a new person. Advertising creates the consumer. The sole objective of advertising on television and the Internet and print magazines and the rest of the entire media sphere is to convert an undifferentiated human audience into the kind of people who identify with certain products and are willing to spend their hard-earned cash to consume them. Increasing the sales of products is precisely what pays for the TV programming.

Does it work? Is this system effective? The fact that advertising has expanded globally and has grown steadily each year for the past century indicates that the people who pay for media are quite satisfied with the result. So are audiences.

Brand image campaigns tell us a story that is so well crafted and so persuasive that we imaginatively project ourselves into the narrative. We become emotionally invested in the brands that we love. The most successful image campaigns provide audiences with a readymade identity that they can try on and immediately assume as part of their own.

This works. The proof is that we identify with certain brands so much that we wear their logos with pride on our shirts and shoes so that everyone can see them. That way we telegraph a meaningful aspect of our personal identity so efficiently that even strangers can understand at a glance who we are. We have internalized the logic of the marketing campaign and we’ve integrated the layered narratives that are encoded in brand identity to such an extreme degree that we begin to merge our own individual identities with those narratives. We feel like the brand identity is our identity. Check out my Allbirds! Not bad, eh?

And that’s how image advertising creates the customer.

In my previous post, I made the observation that there are two ways to fashion a unique identity for a consumer product: logos and barcodes. Now le’ts add one more point: superb brand building also creates an identity for the customer.

The product logos are intended for human audiences. They are designed to be distinct and easy to remember. And the best are designed to be worn by us. Brands are called “brands” for good reason: they are seared into our unconscious minds via the vast apparatus of electronic media, most of which was funded by advertising. That, and we wear them on our backs like branded cattle.

In my next post, I’ll make the argument that the entire elaborate mass communications apparatus funded by advertising is on the brink of collapse.

And that’s why the other visual identity system for products, UPC numbers depicted as barcodes, will inevitably emerge as the most important product identity system on the planet. I’ll cover that topic in subsequent posts in this series.

My previous post introduced the topic of product identity in this series. It’s called “Product Identity is a tale told twice, in pictures” and it’s definitely worth reading, in my opinion. If you agree, share it with a friend! If you don’t, share it with an enemy!

The next installment in this series speculates about the breakdown of traditional advertising supported TV and probes beyond the lazy meme of the “Death of Television.” What we are about to witness is a reinvention of advertising, and that can only be good news. Check it out right here!


Digital identity is a complex and sometimes bewildering topic. I’m writing this series of articles to help clarify my own understanding, and I welcome your comments, corrections and contributions. If the topics in this series of articles interest you, then why not join me for a discussion in person? I will be the host and master-of-ceremonies for the Innovation Track of GS1 Connect, the biggest gathering of supply chain experts in the world. I will interview the leading experts on digital identity in a roundtable discussion at GS1 Connect on June 19.

If you are interested in digital identity, product identity, blockchain for supply chain, business process automation, the application of artificial intelligence to manufacturing and retail, then this is a conversation you don’t want to miss. This year, GS1 Connect takes place in Denver Colorado on June 19 to 21. You can get early-bird pricing if you apply before April 15.

For 30 years, I’ve been focused on designing and launching new digital services. In the process, I’ve grown fascinated with the way we are constructing a digital version of the real world. During my career, I’ve supervised the launch of the world’s first mobile video services, some of the earliest PC games, online games and mobile games, and the biggest live online learning programs in the world. I’m also the author of the award-winning book Vaporized: Solid Strategies for Success in a Dematerialized World which you can read in entirety here on Medium (or if you are feeling generous, you can buy the book on Amazon . Thanks, I love you for that!). Today I serve as the Special Advisor for Digital Identity to GS1 US. GS1 is the global standards body for product identity.



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Robert Tercek

Author of Vaporized. Special advisor to GS1 US. Keynote speaker about the future of media, commerce, culture, audiences and society in a two way environment