Episode One Hundred and Eighty Four: Our Crap Connected Future; Oh My God More Advertising; Echo

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

6:59pm in Las Vegas. There are at least 16 slot machines in my line of sight. A day trip this time, to see how things are going, and they’re, well, going.

To be honest, it feels weird to have written a bunch of reckons about the Samaritans stuff and digital and advertising and all of that. I got a great bunch of notes back, and I’ll be writing back to you individually over the next few days (or even weeks).

1.0 Our Crap Connected Future

When I was a teenager and in the midsts of my first relationships, buying jewelry for my girlfriend was totally a Thing. Jewelry’s one of those things that back then was a whole bucket of neuroses – am I buying the right thing, does it mean the right thing, is it “pretty”, will she wear it, will she like it, all of that kind of stuff. All of that self-analysis to try and make the right kind of gesture.

Back then – you know, the 90s – things were made out of dumb matter and nothing had a radio in it never mind a TCP/IP connection and they certainly didn’t light up or sense things. I think about the kind of jewelry that my son might buy for someone and what it might do.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino[1] pointed at Artemis, an indiegogo campaign for a piece of personal safety smart jewelry[2] on Twitter, describing it as a “Nice, pendant that doubles as a geolocation safety service”[3]. Which appeared to light a touch paper of sorts: relationships already have to now negotiate a sort of public graph and visible interactions on networks like Facebook and Twitter, *never mind* what will happen when the objects that we use to show affection become (inevitably?) smarter and just more nodes on the network.

So:

“When we broke up, I promised to never forget him; he gave me a locket to wear forever.

Turns out it’s leaking my GPS location.”[4]

“A List of Exes Who Remember Me Every Day They Use My HBO Account”[5]

“After He Cheated On Me, I Changed The Passwords On All Our Jewelry”[6]

I think it’s the last one I like the most. The idea that in our crap connected future – the one where you can buy GBP 24.99 jewelry from the equivalent of a catalogue retailer like Argos in the UK. Or, you know, $25 jewelry from the case at Walmart that’s churned out in the millions-of-units range. Or hundreds of thousands, I don’t know. But that each and every single bit might well come with a radio and an IP address and an account and some sort of smarts – or dumbs – that require yet another layer of management because hey, it turns out we still don’t really have good patterns for building the software that mediates that relationship yet.

And then, and then!

After all of that, the idea that those objects start to permeate our culture. I grew up with Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in ten years, it might be Bridget Jones’s Wearable[7]. Or a Film About A Divorced Man Who Falls In Love With His New Amazon Shopping Appliance[8].

There was a nice piece in Genevieve Bell’s talk at Web Directions last week – about how her research has shown that people are egocentric – not a value judgment, just a fact: that when we’re told our objects can talk or communicate with one-another, we assume that they’re talking *about us*. That they are talking behind our backs. That, for example, your connected devices might tell tales on you. That Facebook might talk to that new app you signed up to and tell it that you’re lying about what your mother’s maiden name was. That if you’re in a relationship, you might find out that your partner’s really in love with you because his heart rate increases whenever he’s around you, or that last Wednesday he ran to meet you.

And, of course, if you *trusted me*, if you *loved me*, then of course you’d let me access your data. Of course you’d pair your Withings scale with me. Or that by the time you decide to move in together, you get a shared Withings account. Or can you have a Withings account in a shared house? What’s shared smart home infrastructure look like?

[1] Alexandra D-S at Designswarm
[2] Artemis: Smart Jewelry for Personal Safety
[3] https://twitter.com/iotwatch/status/530535180797497344
[4] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/530548021738500098
[5] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/530548834472960000
[6] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/530549595710189569
[7] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/530552131175329792
[8] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/530550510676635650

2.0 Oh My God More Advertising

Okay, so. More advertising. I haven’t watched the Amazon Echo ad yet, but suffice to say there’s commentary from people whose opinion I respect, like Ellen Chisa[1] that indicates that it’s about par for the course for tech advertising that isn’t Apple’s stuff, or maybe Google’s more recent stuff: ie, pretty terrible. Amazon doesn’t have the excuse that Samsung has, for example, of being culturally out of touch with what’s acceptable in a Western audience (or, indeed, everywhere) so it’s not like it sounds like it’s *ridiculously* sexist like last year’s Samsung SSD “ad”[2].

But anyway. As Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey[3] was prone to say, I’m just stopping by with some ingredients I’d like to pop into your thought-wok and for you to give a stir around:

– the idea that before, you built a brand not just by doing but by advertising, and advertising was the one way you could (and still can) quickly and efficiently reach a lot of people with a single, consistent message (if you’re doing it right)

– the idea that it was easier to exemplify a brand through just saying what it was than by *doing it*. And easier is/was also cheaper: the argument that I’ve seen running through the replies to some of my previous episodes has been along the lines that it will *always* be cheaper (if not effective) to advertise your way out of a problem than to actually “do better”. Or, you know, deliver.

– the weird idea that, as some people seem to think[4], television advertising is figured out because we know how to make “good” ads. The truth being that the web *does* need to learn, but it hasn’t quite figured it out yet, and it *feels* like the trend is for the brand-advertising that works on the web is more like brand-advertising that works on TV. Basically: video.

– but then, the thing that I get hung up on which is: what is the web best at? It is certainly *better* at a lot of things, and that’s probably enough. It’s *better* at letting people see what they want, when they want to. It means push-brand-advertising rather than pull-brand-advertising. TV is still pretty good at reliably delivering large audiences in one go – not as big as the ones it used to – so that when you’ve got the cash to burn and you absolutely want people to see your thing, then hey, maybe you can put it in front of those eyeballs. The web doesn’t quite work that way (thank god), and some of the stuff Facebook have been saying about how their forthcoming video ad units might work is, well… interesting.

– no, the web is best at the link: first linked pages, now linked data, and all the link implies. But you don’t need to be best to just be better, and the web is better than television at delivering things that people want when people want it. You know, like that ad they saw on tv that they liked. But “branded experiences” from the heyday of things like The Wilderness Downtown (which is OVER FIVE YEARS OLD NOW[5]) and required that you actually download a browser to experience it feel like they’re over. They’re big and they rely on, like some of my readers suggested, some idea of “engagement” that was super immersive as opposed to the lightweight engagement that seems to be optimised for these days.

– the thing instead that brands are built these days by doing, not by telling. Nike was also built by doing, but its doing was constrained to atoms – it had to make shoes and sell them out the back of cars, waffle-irons and all, but it was the advertising-that-wasn’t-advertising from the taste of Phil Knight and the partnership with my ex-employer Wieden+Kennedy that used Nike and advertising and communications to be the *idea* of a thing, rather than the *delivery* of a thing. When a client like Facebook or Airbnb comes to a traditional brand advertising agency, the kind that doesn’t want to do product advertising, the doing is already there. All that’s left is the massaging of the messaging. A “provocative relationship” is already being formed in a way that’s not been possible thanks to a new digital medium.

– the more-or-less-lie being told by *advertising agencies* to their creative teams – especially the younger ones who are coming into the business in that they don’t actually get opportunities – or will rarely get opportunities to *solve business problems creatively*. Ultimately, what they have to do is advertising. The creativity part, at least in advertising, serves as part of the “how do we get attention in an increasingly noisy environment”. Part of this is the really weird thing where ad schools are teaching ad school students how to come up with “apps” when, really, I can’t even do this. I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s just such a bad idea.

[1] https://twitter.com/ellenchisa/status/530541892153655297
[2] Stupendously Sexist Samsung Evo SSD Ad (“Have you ever played with little toy bricks before?”)
[3] Drop the Dead Donkey
[4] https://twitter.com/cdixon/status/530157819454971905
[5] http://www.b-reel.com/projects/digital/case/57/the-wilderness-downtown/

3.0 Echo

OK. I’ve watched the Amazon Echo ad[1] now. You don’t need me to tell you it’s terrible. Not only is it, like Chisa above says, stupendously sexist, it’s also just a *bad ad* and smacks of what Dustin Curtis talks about when he says they just plain have no *taste*[2].

Leaving aside the “what problem does this solve” thing other than an incremental (but, I suppose useful) benefit, for when you a) can’t be bothered getting your phone out of your pocket, b) can’t be bothered *lifting your wrist to your hand that has an Apple WATCH on it I guess you could c) strategically position a NUMBER of Amazon Echoes around your house (the video has the Echo creepily following our weird Stepford Advertising Family around their house – we see it in the living room, then someone’s moved it to the kitchen, and most amusingly, Dad (I presume, seeing as he’s the one to blame for this entire mess) appears to have taken it up to the parental bedroom at nighttime so he can wake up next to both it/Alexa and his wife).

Also, I *guess* and I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but I suppose at least Amazon Echo is a thing, and Alexa is a separate thing, and the thing is not Alexa in the same way that Theodore’s OS upgrade was an OS upgrade and was also Samantha but seriously the whole thing is just *weird*. From Tech Dad’s Mansplaining (at least Playing Dumb Wife had the decency to mock him behind his back when he wasn’t looking) and strange dialogue: “It’s Amazon Echo”, as if he’s been handed a brand guidelines book with the package (which he obviously has, because this smacks of the kind of ad or infomercial that happens when there’s no one with a bit of sense to smack the client around the head and say JESUS CHRIST GET OVER YOURSELVES, YOU’RE GOING TO LOOK STUPID).

And to those people asking: how can something like this still exist, still be made in a post-Snowden world? Have you not looked at the post-Snowden world? It’s pretty much the same as the pre-Snowden world, only now, we’re a lot more terrified. Sure, a bunch of opsec people at Google are super pissed and bits of the internet are becoming more encrypted, but hey, this is AMAZON we’re talking about here. They have a SPECIAL VERSION OF AWS that they built JUST FOR THE GOVERNMENT. What did you expect?

But yeah: Alexa is not a thing in her own right, just a feminine slave to be commanded by the family and fought over by the children, and she’s also “named” Alexa by the family, apparently? (“She only hears you when we say the wake word we chose”) to which there are going to be a bunch of families who, if they ever buy this and have children, will inevitably have to figure out why Alexa no longer responds to Alexa but instead responds to “pooface”.

I just. Can’t. Even. I mean, “ALEXA, GIVE ME MY FLASH NEWS BRIEFING” – is that something that Tech dad programmed into Alexa so he could be all GIVE ME MY FLASH NEWS BRIEFING? I mean, I suppose it can be *fun* and pretending that you’re having fun, but there’s no *pretending that you’re having fun* in that horrible ad, he’s *actually being serious*. Like, serious serious. And if that phrase *isn’t* something that’s user-defined and is instead a standard Alexa activation phrase: seriously, Amazon?

And then again, the fact that you have to be *invited* to buy this thing and that Prime Members will get $100 off which again: how much is this thing going to cost? What’s Amazon’s plan here? Is it to just embarrass themselves?

[1] http://www.amazon.com/oc/echo
[2] http://dcurt.is/amazon-has-no-taste

Alexa, post this newsletter episode for me and set an alarm for 7am.

Dan