Does ‘Minority Report’ Portray a Scary Future?

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Jul 19, 2002

Seeing the new Steven Spielberg flick “Minority Report” got me thinking about the difference between mass marketing and personalized marketing.

I attended a matinee on Sunday because several people have told me about its futuristic visions of brand, interactive, and direct marketing. They told me it explores a lot of ideas surrounding personalization, and it raises a lot of concerns about privacy. What resonated with me, however, was something completely different.

For those who haven't seen the movie, the relevant part for this article is the depiction of electronic billboards and displays. Using a retinal scanner, the billboards (such as those on the walls of a subway) call out the name of the passerby. One ad, for American Express, shows the passerby's name on an American Express card, with the “Member Since” field dynamically updated to reflect that person's membership. A Guinness ad speaks to Tom Cruise's character as he walks by, saying, “Hey, John, you look like you could use a Guinness!” The most interesting example, however, is when Cruise's character walks into a Gap store. The ad welcomes him back and asks if he enjoyed the shirts he had bought previously.

A scary vision? Many of the critics writing about the movie seem to think so. Many of the reviews have talked about its “complete erosion of personal privacy” (Entertainment Weekly), and how “intrusive” the personalized ads are (The New York Times). I even went to the privacy experts I know and got their opinions. Scott Beechuk, co-founder of PrivacyRight, agreed that “‘Minority Report' does bring to life our greatest privacy fears.” Since he follows privacy issues much more closely than the average movie critic (because this is what he does for a living), Beechuk also acknowledged that “it's unlikely that this Hollywood prediction of personalized advertising will become a reality.”

In my view, this movie does not present a scary picture of where personalization and privacy might go. The movie does, however, present a scary picture of what can happen when personalization and direct marketing take over the media currently used for mass marketing. It also reinforces the fact that personalized and direct marketing will never replace mass marketing, as there is room, and need, for both.

Let's think about it. That Guinness ad isn't really new. Every online store worth anything welcomes me by name. Technologies such as Flash have allowed stores to start putting my name directly into their graphical ads.

The lesson is mass marketing ads that include the user's name seem disingenuous and intrusive. I received a mailing (real mail, not email) from Office Depot. It said on the front, “This special is just for you, JACK AARONSON.” Inside, the “special offer” was merely a coupon for $10 off my next purchase. Much in the way personalization and mass marketing mix in the movie, Office Depot's mixed use of these techniques offended me. Why? Because a $10-off coupon doesn't seem that special to me, and it was definitely not personalized. I bet everyone who got that mailing had the same “special offer.” Oh, and a note to Office Depot: Putting my name in bolded all caps is really effective at disguising that this was merely a mass promotion with a simple mail merge. Good job.

What about the Gap example? Many online stores recommend products to you based on your previous purchases or ask you to fill out a questionnaire about a product you bought. But in the movie's version, the Gap billboard is what my ClickZ colleague Martin Lindstrom calls a “passive” medium. It is not appropriate for the billboard to ask, “How are those shirts you bought?” because there is no way for the user to respond! Trying to make a passive medium look “interactive” is just heightening the chasm between these paradigms.

What about recommending products based on your past purchases? Most companies have been doing this for years. As long as these types of marketing techniques are done in a “private” way, most people don't have objections. If I could walk into a Gap store, go over to a “Shopping Assistance” counter, scan my ID, and print out a recommendation list, I would. In that scenario, my interaction with Gap would be private and proactive. I asked for something, and Gap responded in a personalized way. The intrusive display of personalized information in “Minority Report,” along with the fact it is done publicly, is what is disturbing.

At TechXNY a couple of weeks ago, I saw Palm Pilot and Windows CE “scanning booths” all over the place. Basically, you walk up to one of these booths and point your PDA at it. The booth then downloads information (such as a game or a promotion) to your PDA. It is easy to imagine the evolution of this to include personalized information based on the ID of the PDA. This will be a fine evolution, because your PDA is a private device and the information is for your eyes only. Scanning your PDA for an ID and then publicly presenting information for you would not be OK.

“Minority Report” does paint a scary picture of marketing's possible future. What is scary about it, though, is not the fear that personalization might eventually go too far. The real scare is in seeing what might happen if we, as an industry, mix personalized, interactive, and mass marketing in inappropriate ways.

So, the next time you consider adding a user's name to a mass marketing ad that isn't really personalized or wonder how better to personalize a user's experience in the offline world (where other eyes could be watching), think about “Minority Report” and the picture it paints. Remember there is a big difference between mass marketing and personalized marketing and combining them may not always be an effective, or appropriate, strategy.

Until next time…


Reprinted from ClickZ.

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