AT&T’s Early Nineties Ad Campaign Got The Future Right (For The Most Part)

By David Wharton | 6 years ago

Predicting the future can be tough. Even if you’re well versed in every aspect of your reality, from the technological to the philosophical and everything in between, the force of history will often take a sharp left down a side alley you didn’t even see and roll right past you while you’re still pointing in the direction you were so certain was “the future.” Part of the fun of science fiction is that simple guesswork, imagining what things might be like 10 or 100 or 1 million years down the road, and even when you get it wrong, hey, at least it made for a hell of a story. So let us add a new prophet to the prognosticators of yore such as Isaac Asimov and Gregory Benford: Tom Selleck?

Okay, so the once and future Magnum only provided the voiceover for the early ‘90s AT&T ad campaign featured in the video above. But damned if that cheerful, friendly voice doesn’t make me retroactively certain that yes, I will do all the things AT&T is prophesying. I will send someone a fax from the beach, Mr. Magnum, I really will!

Well, I’ll email them a file from a tablet computer anyway, and that’s more or less what the visuals accompanying the “fax from the beach” bit in the ad look like, so I’m awarding partial credit.

The “You Will” ad campaign launched in the early ‘90s, with the aforementioned Mr. Selleck posing a series of questions regarding the direction technology might take us, then reassuring us that, “You will.” (Fun fact: the ads were directed by David friggin’ Fincher.) And for a series of videos ultimately designed to convince us to give AT&T some of our money, they have a surprisingly good track record for predicting this far-out future world we find ourselves in here in good old 2013. How good? Let’s run down the list, shall we?

“Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away?”
You betcha. Content has become so largely disconnected from physical media that it can feel refreshing just to sit back with an actual book in your hands. You can purchase damn near any book you want in a digital form, and sources like Google Books make tons of content available from libraries around the world.

“Crossed the country without stopping for directions?”
Another one nailed. The gizmo in the ad is pretty much a dead ringer for the early GPS devices that allowed travelers to never have to figure out how to fold a goddamn map again. The visuals even look pretty close to the interfaces such devices use. Of course now we’ve taken things a step further and consolidated GPS guidance devices into one we already had on us at all times anyway: our phones.

“Or sent someone a fax from the beach?”
As we mentioned above, this one is close but no cigar. The notion of “faxing” someone a document as seen in the ad would likely be replaced by emailing them one, but kudos to AT&T for getting the general look and design of tablet computers absolutely right.

“Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down?”
Well yes, but not like this. We do indeed pay tolls without slowing down, but that’s because we either have pre-paid toll tags in our car or they just photograph our license plate and send us a bill in the mail. All in all, a helluva lot easier than having to fish a credit card out and slide it through a reader every time you roll past a toll station.

“Bought concert tickets from cash machines?”
This one fails by not being ambitious enough. We don’t need to buy concert tickets from “cash machines” because we can do it from our home computers or laptops. Or, hell, our phones. AT&T’s vision is basically the equivalent of those ticket kiosks at theaters that allow you to skip over that paleolithic process of waiting in line to deal with a human. Partial points!

“Or tucked your baby in from a phone booth?”
Phone booth? Hah! But seriously, this is basically Skype. Sure, there are designated video conferencing setups out there, but as far as the primary way we communicate with people elsewhere? Forget video conferencing, most of the time we don’t even make a freaking phone call anymore. As a wise man once observed, unless you’re on fire, don’t call — text. Can do? Yes. Do do? Not really.

“Have you ever opened doors with the sound of your voice?”
Again, I’m sure we could do this, but it’s certainly not common. And given how easy it is to record and playback audio, we can probably agree that this one would be a horrible idea. Unless you have to not only speak but recite a series of song lyrics or dirty limericks so that would-be thieves would eventually just get bored and leave.

“Carried your medical history in your wallet?”
No, and I don’t need to, ‘cause we’ve got the internet and email and all sorts of other handy ways doctors’ offices can share information. Although I do have a punchcard where I can get a free haircut after so many visits. That’s pretty cool.

“Or attended a meeting in your bare feet?”
With this job my coworkers are just lucky if I’m actually wearing pants. Thankfully we here at GFR never opt for video conferencing when IMs in between bites of Cheetos will do just as well. But we totally could if we wanted to. Except for the beach part. And sadly, we haven’t perfected holodeck technology yet, so I’d have quite a commute if I wanted to work from the beach. Damn it, future!

“Have you ever watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?”
Nailed it. On demand, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, etc. It’s a reality now and will inevitably continue to evolve as the notion of physical media becomes more and more the exception rather than the rule.

“Learned special things from faraway places?”
Another point for Gryffindor. Most colleges offer online courses, whether they require you to video-conference in or not.

So there you have it. Not a bad job, AT&T, especially given how often these sort of predictions land wide of the mark. I still want my holodeck, though. Somebody get on that already.

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