Big Mouth: Watch the skies

This article first appeared in issue 242 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Pop-up ads aren’t so common these days. Most browsers block them by default, and as more and more of us do the bulk of our browsing on mobile devices, or use apps, the opportunities for invasive pop-ups have grown fewer.

Unfortunately, they’ve moved into the real world instead.

I saw four examples this morning. When I tried to join the main road, I couldn’t see the traffic because of the white van a local plumber has turned into a billboard and parked permanently at the roadside. There was another one across from the petrol station, this time for a tyre fitter. Cresting a hill’s blind summit, I nearly crashed into a Smart car parked sideways in the middle of the road to advertise a restaurant. And, at a famously fast, busy and dangerous roundabout, my sightline onto oncoming cars was blocked by an enormous inflatable billboard – literally, a real-life popup ad – for a building company.

It’s worth pointing out that this is illegal, of course (the relevant legislation is the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, in case you fancy grassing any local offenders to the council). But that’s not what matters. What matters here is that businesses want to advertise. Who cares if it’s illegal, dangerous, makes your town look hellish or forces everybody to experience really horrible typography?

Exactly the same thing happens online. I’ve lost track of the time I’ve spent zapping spam comments on my WordPress sites, deleting unsolicited mail from my inbox or getting enraged at the Twitter users who hijack every passing hashtag to spam anyone who’s watching trends. I get especially annoyed at the small-time spammers, the ones who post the same message from multiple accounts using multiple hashtags, such as “Good morning #town1 #town2 #town3 #town4 #town5” or “Airport taxi £17 #town1 #town2 #town3 #town4 #town5” or “Japanese knotweed treatment #monday #tuesday #wednesday #thursday #friday”.

Drone rangers

It’s small beer, I know, and that’s why it’s so annoying: Twitter isn’t going to boot anyone for that kind of low-level irritation any more than my local council will make the illegal billboards a priority, so I’m stuck with spam in my saved searches and illegal adverts on the street. But wait till the buggers get their hands on drones.

In March, we caught a glimpse of the future: to promote its forthcoming Star Trek movie, Paramount hired a fleet of 30 LED-lit quadrocopters and flew them above Tower Bridge in London, forming the Star Trek logo. The fleet took to the skies as buildings dimmed to mark Earth Hour, thereby hijacking a well-intentioned, non-corporate event and turning it into a marketing exercise.

The technology is still in its infancy, but drone prices are falling quickly – and if that fall becomes fast enough, the same firms currently abandoning vans at the roadside and paying for inflatable billboards will be hiring quadrocopter fleets to put their pop-ups in the sky.

If Google Glass takes off, I hope it comes with an ad blocker. We’re going to need it.

Photography: Iain MacLean

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