Today is October 21, 2015, better known to movie aficionados as Back to the Future Day. It’s the day to which Marty McFly traveled in the Doc’s DeLorean in Back to the Future II.
We’re living in what seems like a radical future from the perspective of Doc and Marty’s 1985. Most days we take it all for granted: the touchscreen supercomputers that fit in our pockets, the algorithms silently crafting our daily media intake, the soon-to-be self-driving cars. But sometimes a minor fluke—like a glitch in the Matrix—jolts us ‘back to the future,’ reminding us how strange—in a positive way—the times we’re living in really are.
A few years back, such a moment caught the attention of millions as a child struggled to understand traditional media. The video that went viral was called "A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” and showed a baby trying to scroll and pinch a traditional magazine. To this baby raised in the 21st century, a magazine—as its parents noticed—was basically a broken iPad.
I had a similar experience last weekend in Maine. The weather was unseasonably cold and so my family and I opted to stay in on Saturday afternoon. We decided to look for a movie on TV. Imagine my joy when Back to the Future was playing on cable. Perfect. We started watching it. As Marty unintentionally stumbled back into 1955, my kids started to lose patience. But they seemed to be enjoying the movie… Hmm, what was going on?
I soon realized that they thought the time machine car was pretty cool, but they simply were fed up with the unending stream of commercial breaks. “Why do they keep interrupting us?” my son asked. “Can’t we just get On Demand?”
It soon dawned on me that my tech-savvy 5 year old son had never seen TV ads before. He’s not one of those kids who’s been sheltered from screens. He has an iPad, regularly watches movies and TV shows on demand, plays on tablets and phones, and regularly flips through pictures. And he’s seen plenty of video ads on YouTube and elsewhere. But those don’t match the annoyance of the myriad, lengthy commercial breaks that come with watching a movie on cable.
Somehow—in retrospect, a bit unsurprisingly—he’d managed to avoid TV ads up to this point. To him, cable TV was YouTube, but broken. The TV commercial, this thing that everyone born after World War II grew up with, was rapidly plunging in relevance.
It is no longer as central as it once was. Of course, ads will still suffuse our lives—perhaps more than ever—but in more diverse forms, and more targeted than ever. It’s stunning to me that 42% of US ad spending is still spent on TV advertising. The shift to digital still has a long way to go.
The intrusive form of TV advertising—seemingly insignificant, always annoying, yet oddly central—meant nothing to him. Noticing this while poignantly watching Back to the Future, it dawned on me that it really is these little moments that make the future the future, not the wacky hover-boards or the flux capacitor in the Doc’s DeLorean.