A More-Targeted World Isn't Necessarily a More Civilized One

Our Alarming Momentum Toward a Narrowing of the Collective Mind

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Better, narrower targeting in the marketing world is taken as an absolute good, if not the holy grail. And certainly it behooves marketers to seek audiences open to their messages, and to tailor messages to heavy users of their products.
As Guy Barnett, founder of New York agency the Brooklyn Brothers, puts it, 'If everyone agrees with you, where's the fun?'
As Guy Barnett, founder of New York agency the Brooklyn Brothers, puts it, 'If everyone agrees with you, where's the fun?'

I heard a media expert say this on a panel a while back: "If I'm a dog-food maker I am now able to send my commercial messages only to dog owners."

I guess that spells good news for the makers of dog food and addressable media technology. But the statement also sends a little shiver up my spine as it hints at an increasingly alarming media and cultural trend -- the narrowing of the collective mind.

In the wider media world, it's also taken as an unalloyed good that we can receive only the messages we've already decided we want to see.

In the mainstream media, it's the Fox News effect -- with more media outlets trying to emulate that ideologically single-minded approach and screeching to an ever more credulous choir.

The web, while granting us access to a previously unimaginably wide world of information and content, has paradoxically also encouraged us to create an opinion cocoon. We don't need to read what some blowhard editor thinks are important stories; we can assemble our own news channel. We can find a small online community that can justify our taste in anything.

This isn't so much a lament for the collective consciousness and memory that mass TV provided during my life up to now. Nor is it primarily a defense of the pleasurable and intellectually fortifying practice of reading and considering things way outside of your area of interest, intentionally or by accident.

What seem to bear examination are the issues that attend the flip side of the customization/consumer-control coin -- that the contraction of our worldview makes us less likely or less able to engage in real debate, to evaluate foreign ideas, to get dirty. As Guy Barnett, founder of New York agency the Brooklyn Brothers, puts it in the agency's blog (brooklynbrothers.com): "No one changes their mind anymore." (Barnett also acknowledges, on behalf of both of us, the irony of evoking an agency blog in decrying insularity.) "If everyone agrees with you," Barnett notes, "where's the fun?"

We've seen the benefits of niche marketing and media. But it seems necessary to remind ourselves of the downside of painting ourselves into a creative and cultural corner.

When I read about this group or that individual seeking to ban what they deem offensive (an insurance company can't depict K-Fed as a restaurant worker because it demeans restaurant workers; the Chinese can't depict pigs in ads as pigs run afoul of a segment of the population), first I laugh. Then I get concerned that this will become the way of things. Maybe one day you won't be able to say anything to anyone because a common language or the ability to grapple with or laugh at something outside of your comfort zone will have fallen away.

The famous Heinlein quote that tells us "specialization is for insects" also tells us that "a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly."

To that list perhaps we should add: "Watch a dog-food commercial even if she doesn't currently have a dog."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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