Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Data, Buckets, Bullshit.

Hand me a very broad brush. 

I'm about to paint in some very unsubtle strokes.

I spent my first twenty years in the advertising business never hearing the term "customer relationship marketing," or the word "bucket." Around 1980, with the rise of the computer as a marketing tool, direct marketing emerged and became a major force in the advertising business.

Direct marketing and customer relationship marketing were based on a simple notion. 

We could use data--the stuff of surveys, open envelopes and nascent surveillance marketing--to tailor copy and offers to people based on their preferences. The use of this data and the placing of "targets" in their appropriate "buckets" was supposed to give us the ability to market to people one-to-one. 

Not only would I know you were in the market for a new sedan (as opposed to an SUV) I had data that said you valued performance but had two kids and also cared about gas mileage.

All that data allowed a copywriter to write a variable field letter that might read like this:

Dear George,

You recently told us you were looking for a new sedan and that you wanted to buy it by the end of the summer. Mercedes-Benz has four performance-driven sedans that average over 20 mpg and have room for four.

Somehow, the sincerity, acuity and perceptiveness of that letter was going to build a customer relationship between George and Mercedes-Benz.

No one seemed to notice or care that the same computers and data that were supposed to build customer relationships based on their discernment, were sending me, an inveterate apartment-dweller, emails on getting a new roof, self-cleaning gutters, or insulated windows. 

No one seemed to notice or care that despite my full-head of hair, I received thousands of cures for baldness. Or despite my parsimonious nature, hundreds of emails beckoning me to buy a $1400 synthetic down vest with a dead-animal fur-fringe.

No one seemed to notice the hollowness of the promise of data and intelligence.

Right now, as I type this, half the advertising world is salivating over the marketing capabilities of Artificial Intelligence. Very much as we've been salivating for the last thirty years or so over synthetic intelligence.

We think that more powerful chips and more yottabytes of data will unlock better and more effective marketing. We'll have so much data and so many data points on so many people that marketers will be able to target me with ads for a handkerchief every time I sneeze. 

It reminds me a bit of the persistent military assertion that there is such a thing as precision bombing. Bombing so accurate, it will strike the bad guys right between the eyes without any danger of collateral damage. 

"Et occidit matrem irrumator praetor!"

You can go back to Thucydides or the Achaemenids or, more recently the Romans and hear them talk about the accuracy of their ballistas.

You can read reports from the Royal Air Force, or the 8th Army Air Force or the Strategic Air Command in Vietnam and chuckle through their claims of pinpoint bombing. More recently, US accuracy claims in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran have proved similarly risible. And deadly.

Marketing, past, present and future is no different. And here's why.

According to data provided by scientists at The Museum of Natural History, the DNA of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos has 98.8-percent of its genetic material in common.

From a direct marketing, data and bucket point of view, we could stick us all together. Statistically, there's no genetic difference between any of us--though I may be a little hairier.

The problem in using data for marketing is that no matter how much there is, there's never enough to provide real accuracy. The number of synapses, cells, connections, and circuits in a human cell is practically beyond the calculus of even the most modern technologies.

The promise of data-based marketing has always been the same. 

The right message to the right person at the right moment. 

In my entire life, I can't think of one circumstance where anything remotely resembling that series of rights has happened to me. 

We are too complicated, too busy, too variable, and too unique to be utterly predictable. Imagine how much wiring is inside me if I share 98.8-percent of mine with a chimp but presumably have completely different purchase desires and customer journeys.

I'll be the first to admit I'm just a copywriter--not a direct marketing expert, a media expert or a data scientist. But I do know something of brain chemistry and neurological constructs. That being said, I'd welcome an informed response from a professional data person. Or a military scientist.

Someone who could give me assurance that precision bombing and precision marketing are possible. That it will do what's promised. And people will like it.

Or not.

So long as it's billable.

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