Is Marketing becoming Autistic?

Nordic Noir's gripping thriller, The Bridge (Broen / Bron), revolves around the two central characters, detectives Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and their very different approaches (literally coming from opposite directions across the eponymous bridge — Martin from Copenhagen, Saga from Malmo). Martin is fallible, emotional and impetuous; Saga — who has Asperger's syndrome — is cold, robotic and logical: cutting through the mysteries with her razor-sharp clinical intellect, but is completely incapable of reading the moods and social nuances of her colleagues. Much amusing awkwardness ensues. 

It's hard to ignore the metaphors in this pairing — Saga is the cold intelligent logic of computers; Martin is the rest of us.

Marketing's fascination with logic and technology is making it feel a lot like Saga Norén nowadays.

The industry press recently trumpeted yet another milestone for digital media — that the time spent online now exceeds that of TV, (3 hrs 41 mins online vs 3 hrs 15 mins for TV), so that's roughy 25% of time spent in front of non-TV screens, assuming people go to bed. A quick trawl of LinkedIn jobs, shows 901 in marketing and advertising, of which 613 include the word, 'digital' in the description; only 21 include the word, 'physical'.

So, if 25% of waking time is spent online, 75% is spent off-line (in a physical environment), we can deduce that marketing and advertising is over-representing the significance of digital by a factor of two and a half, (and under-representing physical by a factor of 22) roughly. And if we include the 184,000-odd decks on Slideshare that include the words 'digital' and 'future' and countless speeches, networking events, forums, blogs, TedTalks, white papers and books on the subject, we can further deduce that marketing is pretty vexed over the arrival of this technology and what it holds for their craft. I don't think consumers are confused at all.

So, in looking for an answer to the problems posed by technology, marketers are looking to, er, technology. The upheaval in media-consumption behaviours seen in recent years has made audiences very illusive to marketers. So they look to the data-trails from media interaction to give them a clue as to where to find their audiences. And because data trails are so rich and cheap to analyse, they believe that more information equals better-knowledge-at-an-affordable-price . 

When Chris Anderson triumphantly declared in his Wired article "The End Of Theory" (ironically, no longer available on the Wired website), “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”, it started to look like an overwhelming victory for logic. But, as Tim Harford writing in the FT and many others have pointed out, it might have been a victory in the style of George W Bush's declaration of Mission Accomplished in Iraq from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln — i.e. far from it.

Famous painter and accomplished portraitist George W Bush in his previous job

Famous painter and accomplished portraitist George W Bush in his previous job

There are many problems with this hubris. Any idea that correlation could ever be a substitute for causality is ridiculous — all that means is that measurements, any measurements — are self-justifying. I witnessed this in action when judging the CLIO awards last year. We sat through hundreds of lovingly produced case-study films showing a staggering array of campaigns that all concluded with a sign-off detailing all the social media metrics — millions of views, likes, tweets etc. Of 750 campaigns, probably only a couple of dozen had any objective link to the metrics they were measured on.

Data always contains biases of self-selection — like Boston City's StreetBump smartphone app, designed to use the phone's motion-sensors and GPS capability to locate potholes (presumably so the city's engineers didn't have to leave the office), which gave a skewed impression because smartphone penetration isn't uniform across demographics, and so under-represented the pothole count in less-affluent neighbourhoods — or unforeseen influence — like Google Flu Trends' overstatement of the size of the flu epidemic by almost double (12% versus an actual 6%) because people were searching for flu remedies based on media stories (and fear of flu) rather than the virus arriving in their local area. 

And even if the data doesn't contain biases, the people running it will. Incredibly smart data analysts, planners and number-crunchers base all their decisions entirely on logic. But, they're also humans and they will inevitably get excited and passionate about their methodologies, which will in turn help them sell them to clients looking for answers (and reassurances). They will passionately and genuinely believe in the logic of what they're doing and in their power to find audiences based on their data trails, and to serve up relevant ads that will be attractive to them.

So, assuming the algorithms do their job and serve up ads that are timely and relevant, how does it feel to consumers? Do they feel flattered that such intelligence has been applied to serve up such scintillating offers just for them? 

Probably not. Normal people, consumers, living predominantly in their intuitive system 1 non-thinking processes primarily see behaviours. And as Mark Earls said, "Advertising is behaviour".

As I outlined in my previous post, intuition is a sophisticated sense of highly-social animals, evolved and perfected to sniff out the finest whiff of intention and motivation, and the first thing it looks for is behaviour. Because behaviour — unlike messages, which can lie — will usually betray intention and motivation. Intuition is a very good lie-detector. 

So, when the algorithms do their stuff and dish up precision-targeted ads from highly intelligent people and processes, consumers don't see ads, they see behaviours and they intuitively deduce the advertiser's underlying intentions and motivations — to track them across the internet — so, intuitively, consumers feel like they're being stalked.

I'm sure many Boston StreetBump smartphone app users must have felt they were being used to do a job the city didn't want to.

So, what I find so unfathomable is the night and day difference between the sophisticated, multi-channel, nuanced, intuitive processes that humans use to make sense of the world, and the single-dimensional, clumsy logic of marketing.

All this logic is trained on the task of supposedly understanding consumers through their behaviour, yet very little thought is given to the idea that consumers themselves maybe doing exactly the same thing — looking at behaviour. But, the humans have a vastly more sophisticated and accomplished system for doing that, and more importantly, can look beyond correlation for causality — for motivation and intent. 

Saga Norén has a comedically hard time getting to grips with the social mores in her office — bluntly asking Martin how often he has sex — but that is nothing compared to the alien robotic behaviour of modern marketing. 

If marketers and advertisers want to be more attractive to consumers, they could do worse than paying more attention to what consumers' themselves pay attention to... and be more human in their thinking and behaviours . 

In other words, be less like Saga and more like Martin. Want to know how? Ask me.