David Ogilvy once famously said “The consumer isn’t a moron, it’s your wife”. It’s still true today, but now she’s become artificially intelligent.

March 28, 20205 Minutes

Twenty years ago when I was creative director at FutureBrand Gio Rossi, I attended a presentation from one of our research partners. I was amazed at how, with nothing more than the sales receipt from a local clothing store they were able to build an astonishingly detailed profile of the purchaser. Her socio economic level, her probable employment position, her approximate age and physique, even suggesting what her Christian name might be. All of this from a single purchase. Supermarkets were the first to catch on with loyalty cards. I used to joke with my wife that Carrefour even knew when my mother was visiting.

It was the only time we ever purchased sherry. But the new silverware and all the other rewards made this little invasion of our privacy seem worthwhile.

AND THEN CAME GOOGLE

Have you ever had the feeling that constant digital companion of yours is listening in on your conversations? Perhaps you’d been talking to a friend or stopped in a store and soon afterwards found a notification relating to what you had just shown an interest in. It probably wasn’t eavesdropping, but it wasn’t a random coincidence either. It was simply a manifestation of just how well we are understood by our AI driven personal assistants.

We all have a digital clone in the cloud built by algorithms and AI. All of us interact with the internet in some way and the extent to which we do determines how developed and intuitive this clone becomes and how invasive it is in our daily lives. Every online choice we make, every search we do, every film we watch on Netflix, every trip we take, is another little bit of information added to a virtual profile of ourselves. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay for the convenience it brings. Our preferences are known, our needs are anticipated and life is made easy. But there is a darker side. Our decisions are being guided in a way that few of us fully appreciate.

Recently the youth-advisory Common Sense claimed that 72% of American teens feel they are being manipulated, and on a wider scale the digital world is leading to polarisation, extremism and conspiracy theories replacing common sense.

It is influencing the way we look at things, how we interact with others and the choices we make.

We have never had so much choice, but we see it all with tunnel vision. People for the most part don’t know why they buy what they do. Most of what we purchase in supermarkets is done without much conscious thought. Up to eighty percent of what we regularly buy are repeat purchases, as many as 150 different products a week. Those of us in marketing would like to call it brand loyalty but in behavioural psychology it is known as “fluidity”. Our brains

are wired to take the easiest path to decisionmaking. The more we do something, the more we will repeat it and this makes us perfect victims for technology. E. O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology put it best, “Modern humanity lives with palaeolithic emotions, medieval Institutions and god-like technology”. During his time as a design ethicist at Google Tristan Harris witnessed from within the large-scale negative impact of his company’s “race to the bottom of the brain stem” and their business model based on attention addiction and persuasion. He blew the whistle and formed Humanetech.com, a non-profit dedicated to “reversing human downgrading by realigning technology with our humanity”. It is a small but positive step towards addressing the mismatch between our natural human sensitivities and the exponentially growing power of technology which has opened the door to a massive extraction and monetisation of our thoughts, emotions, and actions. This doesn’t only have huge implications for brands. Besides global warming it is perhaps the biggest challenge facing humanity today.