A Troubling Rule Change In The Persuasion Game

19 Feb

I’ve worked in design, advertising and digital marketing as a strategist in two continents for a quarter of a century, and in that time I can honestly say that my conscience has only ever barred me from working on one product assignment. That was a brief to promote South African orange juice during the period when Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated, and the worst atrocities of the Apartheid regime were in evidence for the world to see.

I’ve marketed cigarettes to addicted smokers, credit cards to the debt ridden, cookies to the obese and all manner of booze to those who desperately needed to give their liver a rest. And in truth I sleep just fine at night. I justify having spent so much of my professional energy in the art of persuasion by the fact that I live and have always lived in a free country, and if you want to eat, drink, or smoke yourself into an early grave, well that’s your right and your choice!

While I understand that some people may find that attitude callous, to me it’s always been a kind of game I’ve been playing with adult consumers. No one had to read or watch a commercial, pick up a product in store, or browse a site or piece of content online I’d helped to create. If I did my job right and found the ideal emotional trigger to make them stop and think about the brand in question, then I’d won a round in the persuasion game. The choice to buy something they either didn’t need, or which may have been bad for them, was ultimately theirs. I had simply raised their consciousness about the brand I was advertising, and then it was down to their free will.

I guess that’s why I find it so galling in our litigious society when someone sues a fast food chain for “making him or her fat”. Lets be honest unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, at least in western countries, you kind of know that eating nothing but junk is going to clog your arteries. That’s also why I find health warnings on cigarette packs so absurd. They’re kind of like the safety announcements on planes that explain how to use a seat belt, just in case you haven’t been in an automobile since 1943! We know some things aren’t good for us, and it’s our choice whether to indulge or not. My job has been to put people in the position where a brand choice becomes conscious and yes attractive, and I’ve been pretty good at it.

So having possibly concluded that I’m someone with a “fluid” moral compass, you might be surprised to learn of the concern I had last week after reading Charles Duhigg’s outstanding piece in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”: The story of the pregnancy-prediction model that statistician Andrew Pole built and employed for Target, is illustrative of the game changing approach that marketers are employing at the “intersection of data and human behavior”, to bring people to market today. I won’t attempt to summarize this outstanding article other than to scratch the surface – but the gist is that Target were able to somewhat precisely identify when women were in their second trimester of pregnancy, in some cases even before they had informed family members – in order to market products to them at this crucial life moment. And recognizing that people would be understandably uncomfortable with the fact that a retailer was able to do this based on their shopping habits, they then employed a marketing approach that sought to mask just how much they really knew about their customers.

I referred earlier to my long-held belief that advertising is like a game of wits you are playing with consumers in the arena of persuasion. You use you creativity and salesmanship to entice them to consider a product and they can then chose whether to engage of not. And of course as the discipline of strategic planning has progressed in the advertising industry, we’ve become ever more skilled at finding those psychological triggers, and bringing them to life in communications. But building a predictive model for pregnancy and marketing to her before a girl has told her partner or parents about it – and being forced to mask how much knowledge you’ve accumulated about the women in question, seems to have changed the rules of the game – as well as crossing some unseen line of privacy.

If this specific example doesn’t touch you personally, imagine you are poised to propose to your partner and have been checking out where to buy the ring or planning where to take the honeymoon, and she is tipped off by a retailer sending relevant information either to your home or electronically. Or what about if you’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical condition and have been researching it, only to start receiving pertinent information which signals you condition to your loved ones. Does a marketer really want to become the one to spoil a surprise, or worse become the bearer of bad news which is both personal and private?

In sports we intuitively know when a rule or technology change has the potential of ruining the game. And I believe we know that employing a sophisticated mathematical algorithm to precisely target people at the most vulnerable or personal periods in their life is well, unfair, not to mention borderline immoral! And Target knows this as well, hence the masking tactics.

I write extensively in my book Second That Emotion about the way trends, decisions and movements occur driven by emotion based illogical leaps. And one of the obvious conclusions for us as marketers is that the deck is already stacked pretty well in our favor, because consumers are at the mercy of their unconscious whims and habits, when it comes to choosing brands. Do we really need to employ this kind of weapon in the game of persuasion? And if Target’s approach becomes common practice, are we prepared for the kind of backlash that could further denigrate a profession that routinely ranks just above ambulance chasing attorneys in terms of public trust? As always I’d be interested in your perspective.


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