Targeted Marketing and The Uncanny Valley • 1 December 2011 • The SnowBlog

Targeted Marketing and The Uncanny Valley


If you want to be able to read an e-book, you pretty much need a device that connects to the internet. And many of those devices also *upload* information. For instance, Amazon's Whispersync technology lets head office know which page you're up to in your e-book so that when you switch to another device, that gadget can jump to the right page. It's a darned handy feature. And that sort of functionality gives Amazon, and potentially publishers too, access to all sorts of new info. You can tell when a reader abandons a book, for instance. Imagine a graph that shows that, on average, people who didn't finish a particular techno-thriller stopped reading in chapter 14. That's the chapter where our hero visits his grandmother to get her advice. Boring! But why not put out a 'revised edition' where instead of receiving homilies over camomile tea the hero instead arrives to find grandma rigged with explosives by the CIA splinter cell he's been closing in on?

That scenario may be horrifying to many publishers (not the thing with the grandmother - that's just good, clean fun - the bit about issuing revised editions based on surveillance). But it seems to me that as this new information becomes available to us we're going to need some sort of rule for how to use it. If Google, Facebook and Amazon ever teamed up they'd know an unbelievable amount about an unbelievable number of people. Imagine a scenario even more unpalatable than tweaking books by monitoring reading habits. Image you get an e-mail from Amazon which reads, "Dear Jane, is the new baby keeping you up at night? We noticed that you'd been buying Calpol and reading your P.D. James at 2am. Why not download these MP3 lullabies? Your friend Carol (who you recently sent a silk scarf to) gave them five stars in her review. Unfortunately she hated the scarf (one star in her review) but she loves perfume, like this gift pack of her favourite scent currently on special offer. Oh and by the way, there's an 85% chance she's pregnant again and we're having a sale on maternity wear!"

If they wanted to, Amazon could work out *all sorts* of things about you. And if you've ever used GMail and looked at the way adverts in the right-hand sidebar attempt to guess what medical ailment, psychiatric disorder or criminal offence you're currently grappling with, you'll have had a taste of what a world of overly-personalised marketing could feel like.

I don't know what the solution is, but marketing really needs a mantra, a rule of thumb or some set of guidelines to help marketeers decide when they've overstepped the mark. Maybe something along the lines of "Imagine that your company was a person. Never say anything to one of your customers that:
* was revealing enough to embarrass them in front of their mother
* was knowledgeable enough to make their partner suspicious they were having an affair
* was personal enough to  make them change practices if their doctor said the same thing
* was one-sided enough to count as evidence if you were accused of stalking them
* that contains information they thought no one knew but themselves

The Uncanny Valley, by the way, is a term used by animators and robot-builders. It refers to the way that bad copies of people are simply unconvincing, but really good copies can be positively unnerving. See here for Wikipedia's explanation. It's something to bear in mind as we get far too good at mining our marketing data and pretending to be our customers' best friend. 


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