Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What happens when advertising becomes less passive & more invasive

It is no surprise to BMU long timers that Shaun Saunders looks at advertising a bit askew and corporate involvement with thinly veiled hostility. Shaun sends in an article from New Scientist that once again demonstrates how advertising is becoming less general and through the use of technology, much more targeted and personal. The pervasiveness in the future of this type of technology is frightening and the invasive nature which under any other circumstances would be considered invasion of privacy is clearly unnerving.

Read the article first here and here is Shaun's submission on advertising and technology

While advertisers say that their new technology will allow more careful targeting of specific consumer demographics (and hence less wastage), the upshot is, simply, the intent to make sure that the advertising message that reaches you has the most personal relevance, the most power. While this has always been the aim of advertising, it must be considered that the way in which people are 'communicated' to is the point, and more specifically targeted persuasion is just that: the next step up in the grab for control of your thoughts and behaviours.

The question is, can the average person decipher what is being done to them here?

Let's take a historical perspective on this issue: according to Pratkanis and Aronson, authors of ‘Age of Propaganda’, in ancient Greece, all citizens were considered equal, with the expectation that they would be able to speak on their own behalf. In fact, their court system required citizens to plead their own cases before a jury of their neighbours. With this in mind, the average Greek citizen was highly motivated to learn how to form arguments and persuasively communicate their point of view: if they failed, they might lose their reputation and the togas off their backs as a result of a petty lawsuit.

It’s not surprising then that the average Greek citizen's education in the 3rd century BC included 4 yrs of rhetoric designed to teach them how to dissemble and construct persuasive arguments.

Roman students in the 1st century also studied persuasion, while students at Harvard in the US in the seventeenth century also learned how to get their point across: for four years, they would spend every Friday afternoon honing their proficiency at this by taking a stand on an issue, defending it and disparaging the opposition’s position (i.e., debating).

Could the average person today do this or defend themselves in court? I doubt it, but remember also though that these people lived in a world very different to ours – in the absence of TV, Twitter, radio, and before newsprint became widely circulated, how many religious sermons might a church attendee hear in his or her life? 3000? And how long does a sermon last for? I don't attend church, so I'll guess – 15 min to an hour???

Pratkanis and Aronson make the point that we, on the other hand, live in a message-dense or "over-communicated society", and remind us that the average American will be exposed to at least 7 million advertisements in their lifetime. Unlike sermons, though, advertisements (like modern news headlines) are usually short and simple. There is no debate, no invitation to discuss, and also little chance to fall asleep. They are very carefully crafted, bright fragments of information designed to lodge deep in your mind, quietly working even when you’re not aware, and sometimes very hard to remove.

The information overload applies equally to the workplace – since the advent of email, how much info do you receive, and how much attention do you give to it? And what about paper mail? Well, advertisers are hell bent on making sure that you DO pay attention to what they have to say...and there are a hell of a lot of them who want to talk to YOU. NOW.

Is the average modern person – is anyone – prepared for even more sophisticated forms of persuasion? Don't forget, the new technologies are designed to target advertising (and other) messages to individuals' personal characteristics, not broad groups. And with the grim possibility of individual RFID chipping peeking from around the next corner, the software will hardly stop at a quick assessment of your gender and where you're looking. The advertising software might have immediate access to an avalanche of your personal, financial, and medical data from which it can
finetune its message:

..."Like a new car Suzy, but don't have a great credit rating? We can fix that!"

"Jim! Been worried about your blood pressure / cholesterol/ weight lately? Ask your medical practitioner about Shonkyl today!"...

It may also no longer be a one-sided issue of walking away from a sidewalk poster or video message that doesn't interest you. The tech outlined in the article (and in books like my own 'Mallcity 14') will not let you go that easily...if it misses the first time, I'd bet that the programs will regroup, perhaps choose a different algorithm, a new strategy, and try again. Will there be any escape from the consumer maze?

It's one thing to choose to walk past a conventional billboard and ignore it. But what if that billboard - every new billboard, and more - is backed by programming and algorithms designed by the brightest computer experts, craftiest mindbenders and good 'ole fashioned advertisers, with access to your most intimate details (did you forget about that racy vid you bought online when you thought no one was looking, or that special gift for a special friend? The Billboards won't...). It's really a one sided battle - no matter where you go, that billboard's brother or sister will be ready to hit you with the most persuasive arguments, and they won't tire like you will. You'll be pleading a case, all day every day with the most powerful electronic judge and jury who perhaps know more about you and what you've done than you do.

No matter what you call it - '1984', 'Brave New World', 'Mallcity 14', 'Big Brother' or 'Little Brother', the outcome will be the same.

Your place in the maze is being reserved right now.

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