Whinger Bunnington: Advertising Enthusiast

This following is a guest article.

How Focus Media Saved My Life

Until a few years ago, I was the victim of a life-threatening health disorder.

My disease stalked me tenaciously. It knew no bounds: buses, taxicabs, elevators, the aisles and cash registers of my local supermarket.

Wherever I went, during terrifyingly unanticipated moments of waiting, I would suddenly find myself looking at the business end of a few dozen seconds of undistracted time, and thus in the deadly grips of creation’s most terrible instrument of torture: My own mind.

I knew I had a problem. I admitted it. I tried everything: psychotherapists, Ritalin, Prozac, TCM, yoga, meditation, Tony Robbins, Crazy English, etc.

Eventually, my condition got so bad, it took enormous reserves of courage for me to even leave the house.

At home, at least, I could watch the TV without interruption – thus safely insulated from the horrible possibility of encountering my own mind. I preferred to keep my primary Media Reception Unit (MRU), a 17-inch Changhong, mounted atop a sturdy, six-wheeled tray. If I were having a particular rough day, I could attach the tray to my belt with bungee cords and quick-release carabiners, and just trawl it around the house with me. (Secondary and tertiary MRU’s in the bathroom and kitchen reduced the usual trauma associated with hygiene-maintence and cooking.)

“But what,” you ask, “does Whinger do when he’s outside the comfortable confines of his fully intubated home?”

Yeah, I know. I asked myself the same question. Well, to be precise, the voice in my head – the one with the smoker’s throat-gravel and negative attitude – usually did most of the questioning:

“Whinger, you’re going out there into the big bad world without a TV set? Are you insane? Your mind will eat itself alive! No apoplectically-replayed 5-second spots for brain function-enhancing vitamins? No Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Voice Girls? No Public Service Announcements exhorting handsome olympic athletes to pick up litter in front of old ladies, cute toddlers and stunningly beautiful joggers?”

Since I usually did whatever my Inner Smoker’s Voice instructed me to do, it became very difficult to maintain any semblance of a normal career or social life. I mean, let’s face it, most Beijing employers aren’t very receptive to the idea of telecommuting.

“We’re not in Mountain View anymore, Toto,” my ironic Inner Smoker’s Voice would remind me, as yet another prospective employer rolled his eyes at my suggestion that I could “be a teamplayer, but mostly in isolation and at a remote distance.”

And women? Well, they seem to be generally quite comfortable talking about mobile phones, Ipods and electronic pets. But if you take a date to a nice restaurant like Nuage or Jazz-Ya while wearing a portable, harness-mounted, swivel-action, 7-inch Panasonic HT-V56B, some women find it odd.

Sure, the exra hardware is always a reliable ice-breaker, but eventually you get pretty darned tired of answering the same questions over and over again. “Gee, how long does the battery last? Alkaline or lithium? Does it take photos?”

And in those minority of cases where a date actually led to its ideal consummation – what the Godfather might call “going to the mattresses” – things could easily get derailed if my date requested that I power-down the MRU.

“It’s really quite distracting,” one woman complained, “to hear aggressive cross-marketing of Coke, S.H.E., World of Warcraft and Disneyworld while making love. Any more than three brands simultaneously demanding my loyalty, and I get confused. It’s hard to concentrate.”

What could I say? Admit the truth, and reveal that getting served ads 24-7 from at least one primary MRU was the very wellspring of my confidence and potency?

As you can see, my life had become unmanageable.

But then, the brilliant Shanghai entrepreneur Jason Jiang started his company Focus Media, and I once again began to know the word “hope.”

In 2002, Jiang realized that elevators in China were painfully slow, creating interminably long waits for otherwise productive white-collar automatons.

Thinking as admen do, the question “How can we increase the efficiency of elevators?” never once crossed Jiang’s mind.

Instead, he asked, “How can I make a huge mountain of cash off this annoying inefficiency?”

The answer, which probably came to Jiang in a dream, was simple, elegant, and – for me – nothing short of lifesaving: Attach ad-serving TV monitors to every available piece of flat surface in the known universe.

A few years later, Focus Media has IPO’d on Nasdaq, gobbled up every competitor, earned gajillions, and made the world even more friendly and fragmentable for the good folks at Hennessy Cognac, P&G, Nokia and McDonald’s. And now people like me, who previously suffered from isolation, shame and independent thought, can now leave home without fear.

Elevators so slow they seem to be powered by the Flintstones? Taxicabs in traffic so metaphysically intense it appears to be going backwards? No problem! Thanks to Focus Media’s ubiquitous 17-inch liquid crystal screens and state-of-the-art tin speakers, these are now all situations I can embrace without enduring a panic attack or the shame of carrying a 5-pound rock climbing harness.

An industry rumor has it that Focus Media might soon launch an army of beer keg-sized robots that can identify a person’s demographic with AI-enhanced infrared scanning, then follow the target ad-recipient from home to work to karaoke, serving them ads “on the go.” A further rumor suggests even greater penetration of not-really-outdoor ads into the home, but my source at Red Herring insists that “robotic ad-serving sanpei are still at least a few years out.”

You know, the last time I felt so safe about the world, I was only about five years old. In those days, my mother would often read me bedtime stories. My favorites, of course, were George Orwell’s children’s fables about farm animals and nice avuncular men with big boots. And what child could forget the magical fairytale 1984, with its instructive themes of constant war, mindless toil, paranoia and random bombings? For me, as an only child with no siblings to keep me company, there was also something very appealing about the idea of a world where everyone had a big brother.

“Mommy,”I would ask, “Why don’t we have ubiquitous telescreens? Why can’t Big Brother read to me too?” Although Mom never had satisfying answers to these question, it seems that Focus Media is doing its small part to make my childhood Orwellian dream a reality.

If only Focus Media’s screens could look out into the world to see (and perhaps record) all the joy they’re bringing to their users.

In any case, thank you, Focus Media, for making it safe not to think in public again.

© Chris Barden
April 1, 2006

(Edited 2009.02.18)

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