The Industry

Augmented-Reality Ads Are Headed to Your Social Media Feed

Man trying on glasses via his camera on a smartphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hamish Clark on Unsplash and Alexis Chloe on Unsplash.

Augmented reality is one of the most popular emerging technologies, and nearly every major tech company is making a play. Apple and Samsung have their AR avatars, Animoji, and AR emoji; Google has shown how it plans to add AR to products like Google Maps; Snapchat has built its app around its many lenses. Facebook has made its push into the space by giving developers the ability to make Snapchat-style filters for its in-app camera. The social network has also begun testing a new application for AR—advertising.

Online advertising has gone through a few transformations over the years, particularly as the use of ad blockers has risen. Native ads present ad content seamlessly as videos or articles; pop-ups and autoplaying video ads strive to grab user attention; and more advanced ad targeting uses your online behavior to ensure the ads you see are most relevant to your interests and demographics. In essence, though, online advertisements have remained relatively unchanged in one key way—they’re a passive reading or viewing experience. But as consumers turn to online stores for their shopping needs and physical retailers close their doors, brands are looking for new ways to entice people into making purchases. Augmented reality introduces a more interactive way for consumers to engage with products by allowing them to virtually try them on.

In July, Facebook began testing news feed ads with companies such as Michael Kors. In your feed, you might see an ad where a model is wearing a pair of sunglasses: Tap the ad, and you can open up your phone’s camera and try on those shades yourself via AR. Sephora, Bobbi Brown, and L’Oreal are also set to let Facebook and Instagram users tap their ads to try on makeup products and looks. Other companies such as Pottery Barn and Wayfair are also on board to use the technology to show off how homewares may look in your house.

For brands, the benefits are clear. “What we’ve seen on our sites is that when there is a virtual test facility, conversion rates increase significantly,” L’Oreal chief digital officer Lubomira Rochet told Reuters. AR clothing, hair, or makeup ads prove useful for consumers, too, by allowing them to get a better idea of whether a color or style suits their tastes before purchase. On the furniture front, apps from Ikea and Houzz have allowed consumers to virtually test out furniture in their homes. AR ads are simply an extension of what companies are already doing on their own apps and websites. Whether in ad form or on a website, AR is also far cheaper than the alternative—shipping costs from unlimited returns, a la Zappos, or try-before-you-buy boxes like Amazon Prime Wardrobe.

The new advertising technique may present security issues—some new, and some familiar.

“We will definitely see malicious ads and spyware in the augmented reality space just like the ones we’ve seen propagated through [other] ad networks,” said George Avetisov, CEO of the security company HYPR. Augmented reality ad malware may also exploit our cameras and visual sensors, a tactic that could be used to steal biometric data or other information about a user and their surrounding environment. Like current ads that spoof legitimate sites in order to phish for user information, faux AR ads could trick users into clicking. But in general, AR ads shouldn’t present much greater of a risk than current ads do.

“The entire purpose of all ads, since well before the invention of augmented reality, is to encourage interaction with the consumer and drive revenue,” Travis Jarae, CEO of the independent cybersecurity advisory firm OWI, told Slate in an email. “Google puts ads at the top of your search results for a reason—because some people don’t realize they are ads, and they click them thinking they are search results. The goal of getting people to click, look, or buy is nothing new.”

AR advertisements still represent a paradigm shift for online brands. Instead of an image or animation app users passively browse as they scroll through their feeds, consumers are presented with an interactive experience. (Snapchat has gone so far as to give advertisers the opportunity to create AR games for its app.) As AR ads proliferate, it’ll be important for networks like Facebook and Instagram to keep a tight approval process over which companies are allowed to publish them, and to make sure other players don’t try to maliciously spoof that functionality. But as consumers increasingly move their lives online, AR advertisements are a smart way to try to hook users on new products when they may not be stepping foot in stores.