By Dick Meyer
Scripps Washington Bureau.
I am an “at risk” adult.
Without intervention, I might lose it. The trigger will be a random act of marketing.
Maybe it will be a pop-up ad that I can’t close; or one more telemarketing call at dinnertime; or a dumb ad on a coffee cup sleeve. I don’t know when, but I know it’s getting close and I know it will be ugly.
It almost happened earlier this week, sparked by a marketing transgression minor in the pantheon of crimes against our consumer dignity.
I called Walgreens to refill a prescription (no, not for the heavy tranquilizer I seem to need). After the robot voice warmly welcomed me to Walgreens, but before I could punch in all my various digits and codes, I had to listen to a lengthy message about Medicare Part D and how “your pharmacist” (as if…) would give me a free plan review.
I suppose it is a triumph of Big Data that Walgreens knows my neighborhood has lots of elders and targets them with irritating phone propaganda. But I curse it and the growing ubiquity of consumer brain-washing.
“The consumers in the digital world are not going to be captive viewers that will sit through 16 minutes of ads an hour,” Chase Carey, chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, said recently.
Shame on us sheep for sitting through those 16 minutes for all these years.
But now the worthlessness of TV and print advertising is inspiring the devil worshippers in the advertising and tech industries to find ingenious and insidious ways to insert product propaganda into every nook and cranny of our attention span and unwitting subconscious. Computing power makes this cheap and easy; our behavior is traceable, so they supposedly know what we want and what we’ll do.
The creepiest kind of marketing is online. The wizards of algorithms have figured out how to insinuate marketing “input” into every move you make online.
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Your own attention has morphed into a billboard with infinite space on the information highway, that you don’t control.
Emails deliver ads, and ads are embedded in your personal email and social media. Cheesier sites have pop-up ads I can’t remove or auto-play video I can’t shut up. Some (most?) news sites have what is euphemistically called sponsored-content, ads disguised as authentic news stories. Apps have teeny, tiny ads. Many of the sites I visit regularly have “targeted ads” that know I like bass fishing, the Chicago Bears and donuts. I even get spam texts.
You would think with all this technology, spam would already be abolished. It hasn’t.
The last one that hit my inbox starts, “Hi, Would you be interested in acquiring updated 2015 Database with 90 percent accuracy on emails and 100 percent accuracy on rest of the fields at this time?”
Technology can’t even eradicate the obnoxious telemarketer. We have joined every “do not call” list there is and “do not call” is a myth.
And you would think high-tech would invent something less grating than preying on prisoners on hold with Customer Service.
Airlines are the masters, befitting an industry devoted to bad service.
Unless you are a Cosmic Uranium Level Billion Miler, getting to a person entails passing through at least four Gates of Irritation, all intended to nurture a purchase: special offers on flights, club memberships, payments to butt in line and, at the end, a very special offer to take a survey.
Does this stuff even work?
One new technique I despise is the last minute targeted up-sell. Right before you’re done buying “Training Your Pet Ferret” on Amazon, you’ll be offered a deal on “Ferrets for Dummies” and “The Ferret Handbook.” Amazon will also thoughtfully remind you that you recently browsed these books about the history of laxatives in Scandinavia (don’t ask).
Amazonia is spreading offline. Would you like a pastry or yogurt with your coffee, sir? Batteries with that toaster?
Waiters and waitresses are made to talk like Waitrons. “Is everything still excellent?” “Are you finished or still enjoying your ferret stew?” And the one that started it all, “My name is Carmine, and I’ll be your server today.” Who talks like this?
What’s sad about these in-person spiels is that they turn service people into robots. They aren’t selling in the old sense; they’re following scripts generated by focus groups and Big Data. This dehumanizes buyer and seller.
What’s a mother to do? Go hermit? Join the “slow media” movement? Reincarnate Andy Rooney? Shut up and take it?
I know I’m a hypocrite. My whole career in the news business has been paid for by advertising. So, on behalf of my profession and my ilk, I apologize.
And please, enjoy taking a brief survey about the excellent service you received in this content written especially for you.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC