Some new s**t has come to light

I had managed to avoid it for some weeks, it somehow felt like work, and I preferred to escape to a nature documentary or a book, but the Netflix algorithm is, Kaa-in-Jungle-Book-like-persuasive, and so it was that I found myself last week watching “The Social Dilemma”. 

What I saw in The Social Dilemma wasn’t inconsistent with my own experiences working in tech, although as a parent of an 11 year old, Netflix’s storytelling made it next-level panic inducing, leading me to place all manner of social monitoring technology on my son’s phone.

“I gotta get paid!, well hey, but that’s the way it is”

The fact that “big tech” has been consuming our data for years isn’t new and Mark Zuckerberg seems to be giving his half-apologies to some subcommittee or another, every other week.

So it’s the same s**t just with new light, courtesy of some clever narrative and interestingly candid, insider testimonial. Of course, the marketing press loves a story, so I figured someone would at least cover the ethics of it.

Surprisingly it barely got a mention and instead I found myself eye-rolling my way through an article by Helen Edwards in Marketing Week about how marketers are actually underestimating these signs of customer behaviour. 


Didn’t the ex heads of the biggest social networks just tell me they are in the business of manipulating behaviour and that they’d be happier if their kids got addicted to crack than social media? (or something to that effect)

Now I’m going to tread carefully as Helen is a regular in Marketing Week, a published author, regular speaker and “branding expert”. She even has a PHD in marketing. So with a degree in architecture, some industry experience and a tenuous claim of co-authorship of a book about marketing, I feel ill qualified, but still compelled, to comment.

Our lunch breaks, I’m told, have gotten shorter too

Having leapt from the relative safety of Consumer Goods into the ruthlessly Darwinistic world of Technology some five years ago (one of the best decisions I made honestly), it still amazes me to see how the role of the marketer has changed. 

The once revered agency planner and creative duo have made way for the data scientist, analyst and engineer. Day long strategy meetings have been replaced by agile stand-ups and sprints. Focus groups (the ones with those one way mirrors) in my head have made way for AI powered algorithms that help us hack the unconscious mind of our customers. 

It’s no wonder that sometimes I feel cognitively closer to my salad than my coworkers when the lunch conversation turns to Bayesian models, Markov chain analysis and Monte-Carlo simulations. Thankfully the lunch breaks I’m told have gotten shorter too.

Don’t put your faith in research involving T-shirts and slogans

It’s through these eyes that I now read Helen’s article which sets out just how marketers are “underestimating the significance of the small signs and clues coming back to them from their consumers” and why “human behaviour is too fluid, too individual to be linked with the word ‘science’” so it follows that “behavioural science is not really science at all”.

The suggestion that human behavior is too random and unpredictable, to be called a science, is to me, a little myopic. After all, the world’s biggest companies have invested billions believing the exact opposite: that the human mind responds predictably to specific stimulus and can be manipulated to influence how we think and behave. 

If you’ve ever worked in a big technology company, you’d be hard pressed to see how behaviour and science are not inextricably linked. How by mining these very “small signs and clues” from the unconscious “system 1” mind, human behaviour is being altered by the very existence of this technology.

Far from behavioural science (as Helen’s article claims) being “heavily dependent on single famous experiments that fail to be replicated” the reality is that behavioral science has never been more studied. Huge teams of people and the world’s most sophisticated neural networks are conducting billions of experiments every single day – and you have to assume if their profits are a good proxy – they have gotten rather good at it too.

But I read on, determined to find the substantive proof to Helen’s perspective. And there it is: a “global” ethnographic study of 1000 people asked to choose between a bunch of different t-shirts with slogans on them. Dare I say, using a “system 2” research tool to understand a “system 1” behavior and basing the result on 0.00001% of the world’s population, feels a touch unrobust.

To quote Scott Galloway: “The majority of companies that have added dramatic shareholder value all have one thing in common – they spend almost no money on traditional advertising”.

Of course the other thing they also have in common is that none of them put much faith in traditional research involving t-shirts.

Better to be relevant than different

Part of me worries for the future generations of consumers, who will grow up in a world where their thoughts somehow get manipulated by machines, and the other part that future generations of marketers, will read these articles and think this is how the industry still sees itself. 

When I hear Helen say: “Global marketers must do everything in their power to differentiate their brand through innovation on the product, service, customer experience, packaging, the business model and delivery mechanism” I ask myself: what happened to relevance?

Can’t global brands not just make themselves more relevant by understanding what their customers think and need and then design their products and services in ways that meet that need best? Whether that product or service is different is surely much less important than whether it is just better.

History has proven that the world’s most successful companies are not more successful because they are more differentiated, but because they satisfy the needs of their customers better than anyone else.

The pursuit of differentiation and relevance are two very different paths

When I think back to my time at Mars, working on Snickers, in 2013 we established a link between people’s emotional need state and snacking behaviours and then managed to find patterns in these consumers’ digital fingerprints, that meant, with a degree of certainty you knew someone’s mood. With biometric data and facial recognition software, we could bypass traditional “system 2” research that relied on what consumers told you they thought or would do (and rarely mapped to actual behaviour) and peer straight into the fast, unconscious, system 1 mind, of our customers.

Within a year we’d figured a way to accurately measure attention, engagement, distraction and emotional peaks and by combining these with metrics like view-through rate and sales data we could evaluate how good a piece of content was at delivering one desirable outcome over another. By working with the big technology platforms it was easy to place the right type of content, in front of audiences predisposed in some way to the action we’d hoped they take, to sell record numbers of Snickers products. 

We’d done nothing to differentiate Snickers, we’d just found a way to make the same product more relevant.

Let’s face it. Good brands all solve problems. It can be self esteem, anxiety, work life balance, productivity, delivery, connectivity, wonderlust or something else. Great brands just solve them in a more relevant way than anyone else. These technology companies aren’t missing anything. They are embedded so deeply into our lives they see everything and know us better than we know ourselves and they blur the lines between marketing and manipulation. 

That was really what the Social Dilemma was all about and where Helen’s article missed the mark. How these companies can now manipulate ‘free will’ is the new s**t that came to light and I think as an industry we should be talking about it.

The unimpeded freedom to choose and decide, is after all, what really ties the room together.