It occurred to me while watching a bit more TV during the holiday break that analytics already may be shattering society, at least in the U.S. It was a promo for a show about “competitive taxidermy” that spurred this realization. For those of you outside the U.S., you may not realize – though most probably do – that this nation is in the midst of a culture war that has rendered our government dysfunctional. We are so focused on our differences that we cannot build effective compromises on a foundation based on our agreements. And while many commentators like to blame “the media” – or the press – as one of the culprits, I suspect that we should delete “the” and question whether “media” deserves some blame. I’m beginning to believe that audience segmentation may actually enable and fuel the crippling culture war.
“Big Data” is hot, for better or worse. In media circles – and Pay TV in particular – audience sub-segmentation is one example where the application of analytics has matured. Pay TV providers and their content production partners have a very good idea of who’s watching, when they watch, and what ideas and images resonate with them.The data they possess is used to create value propositions for advertisers in a concerted effort to ward off the ad price and demand erosion broadcasters have faced increasingly as the Internet has grown and become an alternate, and now dominant, media consumption channel.
The messages, attuned and targeted to analytically derived audience segments, boil down into series of stereotyped attitudes that are pumped into distinct audiences 24 hours per day . They use compelling and glorifying imagery that feeds on fears, prejudices, self-justifying credos, misconceptions, and untruths that the individuals who constitute each segment largely believe already or come to believe over time. Whatever its intent (typically to sell more of something or push ideology) this is old fashioned propaganda folks. History demonstrates that propaganda – especially that which feeds off of fear and division – is extremely effective at altering human perceptions, often with horrifying results.
And so I return to the imagery that spurs this post. A young, wiry, poorly shaven man in a dirty T-shirt and camouflage trucker cap raises his arms triumphantly. Victorious, he emits a primal scream, revealing several missing teeth. He exudes a sense of rugged but truculent masculinity that programs like Deadliest Catch (which I happen to love for the scenery and extreme fishing conditions, not so much the macho mumbo-jumbo) have proven resonates powerfully with the sought-after young, single, male demographic. What does he celebrate so viscerally? Winning a taxidermy competition.
Now ask yourself – who appreciates taxidermy enough to see it performed competitively? Probably hunters. And not just hunters, but hunters who believe they are engaged in a battle for survival against nature that necessitates high velocity ammunition, semi-automatic rifles, and laser range finding scopes. Analytics help to identify these people. They tell advertisers, probably those who sell everything from pickup trucks and RVs to fishing lures and rifle ammo, that these folks like to spend their money on things that feed their machismo. They are entertained by the glorification of the toothless young man celebrating his superior ability to turn dead animals into unrealistically posed trophies. And it is many of these same people who likely agree with Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, when he appears on Meet the Press and blithely argues that ease of access to semi-automatic weapons plays no part in the increase in mass shootings the U.S. continues to experience.
Folks like La Pierre, and the businesses that support his organization and his political allies, now have the ability to reach their attendant sub-segments via multiple media channels and inflame them with targeted propaganda. It’s called advertising, but when we see advertisements in magazines promoting the same assault rifle the Newtown killer used with mottos like, “Renew your man card,” it smacks of something far more sinister.
Now, analytics-driven propaganda isn’t only pushed from the political right. Programs like “Whale Wars” represent the extreme left, glorifying the actions of a small band of virtual pirates who use non-lethal weapons to attack and interfere with Japanese whaling ships (as well as various fishing fleets around the world, though these actions don’t yet merit their own reality TV series). The group portrayed in this program – the Sea Shepherds – includes folks who splintered out of Greenpeace because they felt the organization was just too passive. However noble one may consider its cetacean-centric cause, this is an extreme group that oddly and dangerously uses violence as a means to stop violence against whales. So, much like competitive taxidermy, it uses machismo, glorification of extreme behavior, and reinforcement of divisive stereotypes to make an audience sub-segment available to advertisers and other propagandists.
Admittedly, I am taking my own extreme stance here for the sake of making an abstract point. I don’t blame analytics for the culture war or for the effectiveness of violent and divisive propaganda. But we should probably recognize that when we dismiss ethics in favor of business and political goals, and give those with an agenda the ability to polarize and manipulate the masses one group at a time, we add fuel to a fire that has a long and horrific history of becoming uncontrollable. Does this mean we should outlaw analytics? Of course not; but to quote a good friend, it’s worth recognizing amidst all of the hype that Big Data isn’t all “rainbows and margaritas.” In a very real sense, we are selling psychological weapons to all sides in an escalating ideological conflict, even if our intent is just to help our customers to compete.