This next point, I'm more committed to. I think it's more fundamentally problematic.
There's a hypothesis in robotics known as the Uncanny Valley. My crude version of it would be this: the more human robots get the more we like them, until they get a bit too human, at which point they begin to freak us out. (The idea of the valley becomes clear if you draw a graph of empathy versus realism. Have a look at the wikipedia entry, you'll see what I mean.) This does seem to be happening in 3D graphics which are starting to get realistic enough to be unsettling. The reason it's a valley rather than a cliff is the idea that eventually robots'll get so good that they'll be human enough for us not to care and we'll like them again. But since no-one's built a robot that good (AS FAR AS WE KNOW) we can't tell about that yet.
Why do I mention this? Because I think Facebook Beacon and the like have just plunged us over the edge into the relationship marketing Uncanny Valley. I've talked about this before here and here, but it might be worth having another tilt at it. From a different angle.
Whenever you talk about the future of perfectly targeted advertising this scene from Minority Report comes up. It apparently captures nirvana for advertisers; the ability to precisely identify and perfectly direct persuasive commercial messages at a particular individual. Let's ponder for a minute what a misguided bit of futurology this is.
1. Where's His Pop-Up Blocker?
He's an elite psi-detective or something. You're telling me he can't get hold of some open source future firefox ambient ad blocker thingy?
2. Where's The Societal Push-back?
OK. Maybe he's in an awful future where such resistance isn't tolerated. I can't remember. But this would never be allowed in the real world. Society is pushing back the boundaries of advertising all the time, through legislation and social and commercial pressure. The EU would never allow this. It'll probably get piloted in Time Square (like that ridiculous directed sound thing) and then abandoned as egregious urban spam.
3. What About The Standard Of Creativity?
One thing I know to be true. If advertising's going to survive in any form then it has to get much, much better. And those ads there are typically cliched, un-imaginative streams of nonsense. I can't believe they'd invest all that money in corneal recognition and not spring for some decent creative. Especially as they're presumably getting real time tracking telling them all these ads have failed.
4. They're Just Shouting His Name
Yup. With all their genius and precise targeting this is all they can manage to do. Shout his name. In the obviously crass manner beloved of direct mail - Dear Your Name. That, at least, feels true. But is this the best that future marketing can do? Because let's face it, when that's the only thing an organisation has to do, it can seldom even get that right.
If the idea that more information equals more relevance equals great value for customers made sense to people then they'd be calling up DM agencies and offering them all sorts of extra information about themselves. I suspect that's not happening.
Much of the march towards the uncanny valley is because of our horribly sloppy use of language. We behave and talk as though large corporations are going to have genuine, authentic relationships with people. As though they're going to be actual friends. This is palpably never going to be the case. Corporations should of course be honest, respectful, enthusiastic etc etc in their dealings with me. To do otherwise would be stupid. But they're never going to convince me that they're a person, and they shouldn't try to be too much like a person. Which is probably why this stuff is getting so grating. Richard's written more and cleverer thoughts about this here. But I'll return to the robotics metaphor and my usual level of superficiality to suggest that the video below represents the level of humanity to which brands should aspire.