Virtual reality: headsets like the Oculus Rift still have a 'wow' factor
Virtual reality: headsets like the Oculus Rift still have a 'wow' factor
A view from Gavin Fox, Jason Fox

Stop using virtual reality to repackage TV ads

Virtual reality was born to be an experiential medium - so stop giving it a bad rep with 360-degree TV ads, write Gavin and Jason Fox, creative directors at Framestore.

The brand world has embraced virtual reality (VR) with open arms. We’re seeing an exponential rise in the number of VR marketing briefs coming through our doors and huge credit is due for this willingness to experiment with something so new.

Never before has the adoption of a nascent medium been so reliant on marketing. When TV was born, it was primarily there to inform, educate and entertain; not to serve TV advertising.

Likewise, the internet sprang up to democratise knowledge and communication, not to be a platform for yet more advertising. But VR is evolving differently, and in some ways, slightly dangerously.

VR is being driven by marketing

VR’s recent renaissance was pioneered with gaming in mind. But we’ve yet to see a visionary VR videogame come to the fore (although the smart money says it’s on its way). So you’d be forgiven for thinking marketers are VR’s main driving force.

It isn’t enough to re-version a TV script with an element of immersive interactivity

Boldly championing such a new medium is something that marketers can rightly feel proud of. But behind this celebration, a worrying trend is emerging. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of brands want to use VR as a new platform for their TV advertising.

Brands understand that TV commercials need retelling in an interactive and 360-degree way if they’re to succeed in the VR space.

But it isn’t enough to re-version a TV script with an element of immersive interactivity. To do so misses the main point of VR, which is to be experiential. Using VR as a new way to deliver TV ads is akin to the 90s habit of using websites as a new way to display brochures.

VR must entertain

TV advertising is a passive ‘push’ medium that people tolerate whilst waiting for the second half of Coronation Street. You can just about get away with sneaking in some relatively prosaic product messaging between arresting or entertaining audio-visual content. But VR is completely different.

Where TV is afforded a passive push, VR requires a seductive ‘pull’. People make a conscious decision to invest their time in participating in a VR experience. If the entertainment pay-off isn’t there, they won’t be so keen on trying it again, and that means the whole medium is in danger of being dismissed if people’s first experience is a disappointment.

VR campaigns have to be interesting, engaging, interactive, unforgettable experiences – not just for the sake of the brand, but to propel VR into the mass adoption we’re all hoping for. They are an awe-inspiring way to tell brand stories, not just product stories.

It's going to get harder to stand out

VR as a marketing medium is still maturing. At this relatively early stage, marketers are still able to capitalise on that ‘wow’ factor that comes from consumers trying something completely new.

So, for now at least, when most consumers are VR virgins, they can be relatively easily seduced to come into your virtual car and experience all its shiny new features. But once someone has tried VR several times, it gets harder to impress and a product showcase simply won’t cut it.

A brand wouldn’t put out a YouTube video featuring five minutes of pack shots. Brands nowadays understand they need stories to create engaging content. With this maturing VR audience emerging, the same is true for VR.

For those of us who’ve been involved in VR for a couple of years now, there’s a maxim that sums it all up: "VR is for PR". VR works in a marketing context because, when done right, it has an amazing capacity to create passionate brand ambassadors who spread the word far and wide across social channels.

But this works both ways. If VR isn’t done right, a consumer who has wasted their precious time engaging in an underwhelming experience may well amplify your campaign in the wrong way. So using VR as a product showcase is a counterproductive strategy that gives this amazing new storytelling medium a bad rep.

Amazing games will put pressure on VR marketing

Creating high-end VR can be a pricey undertaking. So it’s no wonder brands, under pressure to deliver ROI, want to tick all the product boxes when investing in a VR campaign. But, in line with Moore’s Law, VR will rapidly become more affordable. When this happens, we’ll see challenger brands do more interesting VR campaigns.

Meanwhile, the gaming community is on the brink of emerging from its development hole and will soon amaze the world with jaw-dropping new VR content. And as VR headsets become more accessible, they will no longer be the preserve of big brands with big wallets.

Marketers’ day in the VR sun will soon reach its dusk. Before long, VR will deliver on its original purpose of gaming and entertainment experiences. In this more competitive climate, product-focused VR campaigns simply won’t get a look in. But this will only up the creative stakes. And that’s good news for all of us.