Are we headed for Idiocracy?

Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy fears for our digital destiny. Writing in Advertising Age this week, Chester wonders about the "dark side of interactive marketing:" I fear that such a powerful psychosocial stealth-marketing machine, backed by the yearly expenditure of many billions of marketing dollars, will drive personal consumption to greater excess.

Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy fears for our digital destiny. Writing in Advertising Age this week, Chester wonders about the "dark side of interactive marketing:"

I fear that such a powerful psychosocial stealth-marketing machine, backed by the yearly expenditure of many billions of marketing dollars, will drive personal consumption to greater excess. What will be the impact on our environment, such as global warming, as a steady stream of interactive marketing messages are planted deep into our brains wherever we go? Will the digital push to buy and positively associate with brands promote an even more narcissistic human culture? What will be the impact of our personalized communications marketing system on the healthy development of children, families and communities?

Chester's new book, Digital Destiny, is out now.

We tend to think that progress is persistently positive, a net good for society. However, with any technology as persuasive as a network that can be tuned to give each of us a personalized view of the world, one that confirms our prejudices and worst fears as well Great conversational marketing can help companies deliberate with customers about the values they want to see embodied in products and services.as the value of our highest aspirations, the message can become our destiny. In short, we can talk ourselves into anything these days. When reduced to simple rationales, such as "you should eat what you want" or "liking money is good," media can justify the most selfish actions, because it tells us over and over that we are entitled to just what we want when we want it.

When Time Magazine announced that "You" as the person of the year and Ad Age anointed the consumer as the "agency of the year," I found myself thinking about the same issues Chester raises in different terms: What happened to we? (For a podcast of my "The Big We Is Waking Up," click here.) 

Frankly, if the nation-state is the highest achievement of recognizing our collective interests and common bonds, then mankind is headed for trouble. Nationalism has resulted in plenty of war and death, as well as economic protectionism and ethnic conflicts arising from the artificial nature of national borders. The nation is just an idea that, followed blindly, leads to seeing more differences between people rather than what we have in common.

The dawn of many "you" experiences doesn't necessarily bode well for growing acknowledgment that everyone on Earth is in this life together, unless each of us can discipline ourselves to see beyond our own concerns to those of others. Social media could blind us to others if we are constantly encouraged to believe that we should have what we want when we want it regardless of the cost, which is exactly what many marketers think they need us to to believe if we're going to keep consuming the rivers of crappy fast food, badly made cars, "designer" clothing and other junk they sell.

Media has the potential to help us see beyond our own experience to those of others, which can be recognized as something held in common. We all want the best for our kids. We all want to see more opportunity for ourselves and others. We all appreciate beauty of some sort. We all feel the need to explore and understand our world. 

Great conversational marketing can also help companies deliberate with customers about the values they want to see embodied in products and services. Discussion, engagement and interaction could help cull out much of the wasteful consumption of resources, if people are not directed solely to their inner drives. Indeed, the first step toward a "we" with the moral and economic clout greater than the sum of our individual selfishness is seeing beyond our own experience and into others.

Marketing built on viral videos has only limited utility, because it doesn't encourage authorship by the viewer in response. The Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments were entertaining, but also the epitome of wastefulness. Fun, but pointless, too.

We need to admit to ourselves that not every message has equal value because of the medium it uses, but because it is talked about and debated by the people formerly known as the audience. Just delivering more absurd videos or creating places that simply reinforce simplified marketing messsages or unreflective expression doesn't do humanity a whit of good.

Mike Judge's Idiocracy, a funny but thin film (because the future he envisions is so witless) provides a picture of the world Jeff Chester fears. Want to see what selfishness and personalized media can lead to? Take a look. The reason Judge's future is the way it is: Marketers reinforce immediate and cheap gratification, turning life into a grunting landscape that looks and sounds like an MTV version of Bladerunner.

There is dialog going on. For instance, this guy doesn't get what makes a collective identity ("we") but at least he's thinking about the question. Then, look at the text responses, which ignore the question and celebrate ignorance. The video responses are similarly naive, with little discussion of "we."

Communities that can be experienced by the individual as "we" usually form out of some conflict, either an aligning of people on sides or by overcoming differences and finding a greater purpose that justifies cooperation. The former kinds of community are weak alliances waiting for more differences to fragment them, though us/them thinking is precisely what bad marketing wants to create, while the latter kind of "we" endure because they are founded on the idea that there is something greater than the individual's interests.

Anyway, these are just notes for a Friday afternoon. What do you think? 

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