A view from Dave Trott: Junk thinking

Photo credit: Julian Hanford
Photo credit: Julian Hanford

A 92-year-old lady climbed over the railings by the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

She used a stepladder.

Then she threw herself into the Avon Gorge below. 

The police recovered her body later.

But what made her so determined to commit suicide?

It was targeted media, driven by data – the modern version of junk mail.

The old lady’s name was Olive Cooke.

Olive had always been a very kind-hearted person.

She gave whatever she could to various charities for women and children, in the UK and abroad.

But the dearest thing to her heart was selling poppies for wounded servicemen and bereaved families.

She began when she was 16, after her dad told her about his experiences in World War I.

Then, when she was 21, her husband was killed in the Navy in World War II.

Olive felt she had to do whatever she could to help.

So, every year, she wore her husband’s posthumous bravery medal and went out selling poppies.

Over 76 years, she sold about 30,000 poppies. 

Olive felt she should always try to help anyone.

When charity recruiters would stop her in the street, she would always listen, then sign the direct debit forms.

Of course, this meant they had all Olive’s details.

More importantly, it meant they could share all Olive’s details.

Data that was very useful for targeting by other charities.

And Olive could never say no.

Soon, she had 27 standing orders to different charities.

Most of her pension went on these standing-order payments. 

Until she got cancer and couldn’t get to the bank.

So an elderly friend cancelled the payments while she was treated.

Which is when the targeting went into overdrive.

Olive got nearly 300 letters a month from different charities.

The phone calls came hourly: data said she was a prime target.

Eventually, the pressure became too much – Olive felt guilty because she couldn’t do more to help.

She became confused and depressed and she couldn’t take it.

And that is the difference between ad-tech and advertising.

Ad-tech isn’t advertising, it’s the mindless data-driven targeting of individuals. 

Advertising is mass market – it speaks to everyone, it doesn’t pester individuals personally.

Ad-tech uses machines to seek out individuals according to data.

Ad-tech uses data to pester individuals wherever it finds them.

Ad-tech is mindless, machine-driven nagging.

Ad-tech is really what the ad-blocking debate should be about.

There’s no attempt to entertain, or amuse, or charm.

The belief is that it’s all in the numbers, the data.

Just get the product in front of the right person.

Then pester them until they give in.

The numbers will do the work; they don’t need creativity or thought.

And perhaps that’s true.

If those on the receiving end were robots too, that’s probably how it would work.

But the problem is: they’re human beings.

Dave Trott’s book, One Plus One Equals Three, is out now

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