As a marketing and advertising consultant, I can tell you first hand that, companies all over the world have teams of brilliant minds sitting around dreaming up smarter and smarter ways of convincing you - even tricking you - to purchase their products and services. The level of sophistication the advertising industry has achieved is astounding, and the vast majority of the population has no idea of the extent to which advertising and marketing effect every aspect of our lives. While marketers are working to develop better and better advertising strategies, artificial intelligence researchers and companies like Siri (recent Apple acquisition) are working to create AI agents that can cut through the hype and make intelligent decisions for us. Will marketers have the upper hand, or will smarter phones save us from their persuasive ways?
In this corner, the sophisticated science of persuasion
The major corporations of the world spend hundreds of millions of dollars on scientific research to determine ways to make their offerings more irresistible. Focus groups, surveys, data mining, A/B testing, etc., are powerful tools in determining which strategies persuade the most consumers.
The buzz word of the century in the persuasion industry is "emotion." Our intellectual minds are so over saturated with media that in order to have the best chances of persuading a prospect to become a customer marketers use fear and desire - our principal motivators - to override the thinking brain (neo cortex) and appeal to our ancient, animalistic, emotional brain (limbic cortex). If a marketer can make your purchase an emotional decision, then they have a much better shot at earning your support.
The best example of emotional persuasion is in politics. Each party tries to scare voters into believing that the other side will make your life into a living hell on earth by taking away all your liberties and money and making you into a poverty-stricken slave of government and/or big corporations.
Some of the side effects of the fast-growing science of persuasion in the battle for your dollars are social anxiety, gratuitous consumption, self-esteem issues, stress, and I could go on and on. And it's going to get worse before it gets better.
Persuasion has now become an information technology. Marketers are collecting massive amounts of data from millions of consumers, even entire demographics rather than just small subsets. By monitoring the habits of entire demographics, as opposed to limited focus groups, marketers can determine which factors most effect our decision making processes.
Today, smart phones can monitor bodily functions, pinpoint our location, and record our lives in video and audio. We are entering an age where researches can look directly into our minds using sophisticated tools such as fMRI and physical response sensors such as eye tracking and EEG, among others. These tools will only get smarter, smaller, and faster making them even more ubiquitous. In the future we'll interface telepathically with computers by using mind-reading head sets.
Applied to the science of persuasion, intelligent computers can sift through the mountains of data and devise tactics that laser target an individuals or group's emotional weaknesses.
In this corner, intelligent, calculated decision making
What happens when the science of persuasion becomes so sophisticated that consumers have little or no defense against the tactics used by marketers?
The best defense against the sophisticated science of persuasion will be the science of calculated decision making. While some marketers are working towards building super bots capable of creating killer marketing tactics, others are building systems that determine the value of each of our options and then help us weed out the hype and make wise choices.
PDA apps of the future will tap into the clouds of internet data and analyze millions of ratings, reviews, tweets, and comments and then examine thousands of possible outcomes in the time it would take you to dial a phone number.
I'm optimistic that intelligent agents on our PDA's will be far better at making decisions for us than we will be at making our own decisions and will act as our advisers and mentors. At that point, marketers will have a whole new challenge - how to persuade an emotionless, near-perfect-decision-making bot to recommend their stuff. The only method I can imagine (at this time) of persuading an AI bot to recommend a company's stuff is just plain making great stuff and providing great service.
When the dust settles...
Who will win the battle of the bots? The marketers, or the intelligent agents? Or will they continue to battle it out far into the future?
If the persuasion bots of the marketers win we'll continue to have a consumer culture motivated by fear and desire.
If the intelligent agents win, conventional advertising may disappear forever and with it the gratuitous consumption that it promotes, and it will be replaced by top-notch customer service.
My suspicion is that even with the power of an intelligent agent in their hands, for many humans decision making will still be prone to emotional influences for decades, maybe even centuries to come.
My hope is that some day we'll move beyond the culture of trying to trick each other out of our money and resources and work together for common good.