Tomorrow’s Advertising World: What will become of media context and gentle nudges?

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Recently I finished a thought-provoking book called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. The author theorises about the future of everything from democracy to longevity.

What lessons did it have about the future of advertising and media?

First, let me describe two current obsessions of the media and advertising worlds.

At this moment in time media advertising teams talk about the importance of context. They know their audiences aren’t hard to reach anymore (an ad buyer can bypass their title and reach their audiences on another site, like Facebook). Therefore the media ad sales team talk a lot about reaching their audience in the mindset created by their particular title or programme.

Mindsets might include ‘fun and relaxed’ (Heat Magazine), ‘serious and engaged’ (The Spectator), ‘busy and fast paced’ (Metro) and ‘tired and hungry’ (the commuting audience of The Manchester Evening News).

The theory goes that you can guess the moods they are in and talk to them, via your advertising, in an appropriate tone of voice. A tired evening commuter or a Heat reader enjoying a light-hearted break might be more susceptible to chocolate bar advertising than the same people in different day parts.

Also at this moment in time the shelves of advertising practitioners are filled with books about behavioural economics (for example Richard Shotton’s The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy) and psychology (like Robert Heath’s Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising).

They’re fixated with the point at which advertising meets the human mind. They know most people pay little attention to most advertising and know that can be good for them.

Behavioural economics tells them System 2 thinking requires heuristics that nudge people towards particular brand choices rather than persuasive features and benefits.

They know advertising works best when it doesn’t trigger the part of the brain that rationally appraises and counter argues messages. The more peoples’ brains do those things, the less advertising influences them. After all, the human brain is, right now, the most sophisticated intelligence tool we have.

So media context and the moment advertising hits human brains are obsessions, right now. But what happens right after right now?

Two long passages from Homo Deus stand out.

The first is this:

“For four long years I may have repeatedly complained about the PM’s policies, telling myself and anyone willing to listen that he will be ‘the ruin of us all’. However, in the months prior to the election the government cuts taxes and spends money generously. The ruling party hires the best copywriters to lead a brilliant campaign, with a well-balanced mixture of threats and promises that speak directly to the fear centre in my brain. On the morning of the election I wake up with a cold, which impacts my mental processes and induces me to prefer security and stability over all other considerations. And voila! I send the man who will be ‘the ruin of us all’ back into office for another four years.

I could have saved myself from such a fate if only I had authorised Google to vote for me. Google wasn’t born yesterday, you know. Though it won’t ignore the recent tax cuts and election promises it will always remember what happened throughout the previous four years. It will know what my blood pressure was every time I read the morning newspapers, and how my dopamine level plummeted while I watched the evening news. Google will know how to screen the spin-doctors empty slogans. Google will understand that illness makes voters lean a bit more to the right than usual, and will compensate for this. Google will be able to vote not according to my momentary state of mind and not according to the fantasies of the narrating self, but rather according to the real feelings and interests of the collection of biochemical algorithms known as ‘I’.”

And, of course, if you turn it around, Google will know when I’m susceptible to political ads and chocolate bars and all sorts of other choices.

Homo Deus talks a lot about the new collaboration between biology and technology and how we will gladly give away our biological data in return for extended lives.

If our biological data tells ad servers when we are tired or low on blood sugar or happy or experiencing a high, what need is there for media contexts that simply suggest audiences might be in certain moods?

Another interesting passage is this:

“Cortana is an AI personal assistant that Microsoft hopes to include as an integral feature of future versions of Windows. Users will be encouraged to allow access to all their files, emails and applications, so that it will get to know them and can thereby offer advice on myriad matters, as well as becoming a virtual agent representing the user’s interests. Cortana could remind you to buy something for your wife’s birthday, select the present, reserve a table at a restaurant and prompt you to take your medicine an hour before dinner. It could alert you that if you don’t stop reading now, you will be late for an important business meeting. As you are about to enter the meeting, Cortana will warn you that your blood pressure is too high and your dopamine level too low, and based on your past statistics, you tend to make serious business mistakes in such circumstances. So you had better keep things tentative and avoid committing yourself or signing any deals.

Once Cortanas evolve from oracles to agents, they might start speaking directly with one another on their masters’ behalf. It can begin innocently enough, with my Cortana contacting your Cortana to agree on a place and time for a meeting. Next thing I know my potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana. Or my Cortana may be approached by the Cortana of a potential lover, and the two will compare notes to decide whether it’s a good match – completely unbeknown to their human owners.”

And if all that can happen why can’t my Cortana be approached by the Cortanas of all the supermarkets? They can discuss my cholesterol level; my blood sugar and family history as well as my upcoming 10k run and decide who will deliver the best basket of groceries to my house. The decision is made and the deal is done without my any part of my brain being triggered (consciously or subconsciously). Plus it was all done in System 1 thinking (because artificial intelligence doesn’t need to think in System 2).

Where is advertising now?

Where is media context and where is marketing’s interest in behavioural science and psychology? The marketing director’s day job will move to ensuring access to the best biological data and the most up to date and best informed Cortanas. How different our world will look.

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