In a fit of nesting instinct, I spent a few minutes yesterday afternoon browsing a website called Lamps Plus. As you may have inferred, I was looking at lamps -- I clicked through a few styles made by one particular manufacturer, and then wandered off somewhere else on the internet. Shortly afterward, I was on an unrelated web page and saw an advertisement for Lamps Plus. I sighed at the reminder that my online activities are being tracked.
As I was again browsing online last evening, I saw another Lamps Plus ad -- this time featuring photos of four lamps I had looked at earlier in the day. Even though this only added a little bit of specificity beyond the targeted ad I had been shown earlier in the day, it violated some subconscious sense of my personal space online, and I felt a bit creeped out. It was as if a salesman I had talked to at a furniture store suddenly tapped on my bedroom window and held up a lamp I had considered purchasing.
From the perspective of marketing efficacy, the problem here is that they weren't subtle enough. They'll probably refine that over time, as they have access to plenty of data regarding the rates at which various strategies lead people to make a purchase. But even if they figure out how to avoid creeping me out, I'm not sure that makes it better -- it's probably worse, actually, since subtle techniques may have the ability to influence my decisions without me realizing it. Marketers have obviously been influencing our decisions for quite some time, but the vast new quantities of data and targeting/tailoring techniques now available change the game, and make this more insidious. As I've written about before, it's not an entirely fair fight if marketers spend all their time identifying the factors that can influence your decision so that they can control those levers, while you make a decision without being aware of many of these factors that are influencing your decision. At the same time, scientific understanding of what goes into our decision-making processes is getting more advanced, which adds to the number and effectiveness of the tools of influence that marketers have at their disposal. (For example, the blog I had linked to in that previous post recently had an entry about "facial coding" of expressions, where webcam views of faces as people consume content record where eyes look and what emotional reaction people have to the information they're receiving.)
This may seem like a lot of paranoia touched off by a slightly over-eager lamp seller, but I do think the cumulative effect of all this scheming to influence our decisions can be insidious. To take a more overtly problematic example, in a recent Planet Money podcast, they featured an interview with a former economics professor who is now CEO of casino operator Caesar's Entertainment Corporation. He talks about how they use data from loyalty cards to actively monitor their customers and intervene to make them more likely to keep gambling. If someone loses a lot of money in their first 30 minutes playing slot machines, management can see this and, for instance, give them a free drink. The company is actively experimenting to see what freebies, and what points of intervention, are most effective at keeping people in the casino. The CEO frames this as making sure everyone has a good experience, but of course the goal here is to make sure customers part with as much of their money as possible. Casinos are already fairly sophisticated about manipulating psychology, and this is just taking it to the next level using data with a level of granularity that hasn't been available in the past. The type of information gathered by Facebook, furthermore, is far beyond what Caesar's has -- if marketers want to tailor their approach to single women from 25 to 30 who like Maroon 5 and have no religious preference, they can do that.
As marketers' ability to target us individually grows, it will require greater awareness on our part, and hopefully some new rules to address the changes (and I don't mean new Facebook privacy settings).