!YOUR NAME?, I thought Time magazine's recent cover story on junk mail was pretty good. I felt as if it were tailored directly to my own personal demographics and psychographics -- and you can't get any more personal than that.
As their hook, the editors cleverly used state-of-the-art direct mail technology to "personalize" each cover with the names of its individual subscribers (perhaps you got one, !YOUR NAME?). And the article itself was filled with intriguing little factoids such as last year, 63.7 billion pieces of third-class mail trudged through the postal system and that 92 million Americans responded to direct market pitches -- "a 60 percent jump in just six years," Time said.
Well, a reader like you with an income over !YOUR ANNUAL INCOME CALCULATED FROM CREDIT CARD DATA? who drives a !YOUR CAR MAKE? is the sort of person who receives a lot of junk mail and probably finds the Time cover story as informative as I did -- particularly as we enter this holiday season of solicitations and mail-order merriment.
However, I'm even more fascinated by what the Time article left out. The relentless inbreeding of database technology and printing techniques does more than just boost the volume of junk mail; it's also producing a mutant marketing offspring that oozes with insincerity. I hope you can tell that this is a particularly annoying trend.
By dropping in people's names and little tidbits gleaned from databases hither and yon in their direct mail pitches, these marketing organizations are trying to create the illusion of intimacy. In reality, these technologies conspire to corrupt and degrade intimacy. They cheat, substituting the insertable fact for the genuine insight. These pitches end up with their own synthetic substitutes for the real thing.
"There's a latent battleground between advertisers, who are trying to get people's number on one hand, and consumers, who are developing an ever-more sophisticated armor to deal with it," says Arlie Russell Hochschild, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist who authored "Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling," a study of how service people are trained to fake sincerity. "It makes us more manipulated people."
Just who do these database marketers think they are kidding, anyway? What we have here is less a technology than a gimmick. This melange of hardware, software and database means as much to "personalizing" as a creep who specializes in one-night stands does to the ideal of "romance."
David Ogilvie, the grand old man of advertising, once admonished his copywriters that "the consumer isn't a moron -- she is your wife." Similarly, it's time someone told these direct marketers that individuals are more than just mosaics of data pieced together by IBM AS400 minicomputers. There is this misbegotten belief that, if we assemble elaborate dossiers on people, we somehow "know" them.
But if we look at the relationships that matter in our lives, both personal and professional, it's clear that the kind of data you'd find in their checkbook or their American Express bill or their magazine subscription list is virtually irrelevant to how you feel about them.
The idea that marketers can somehow "construct" valid images of individuals out of "info-shards" is simultaneously silly and harmful. Yes, it's useful to know if a couple has children if you want to send them a toy catalogue -- but the existence of children tells you nothing about the quality of that family's life or what they yearn to be as a family. Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently on the "banality of evil." With the sucker's bet of database marketing, we're slipping into the evils of banality.
This isn't just a problem of the marketers. Companies like Time Warner Inc. are counting on something called "selective binding" to let them "personalize" (what a loathsome word!) their magazines according to both subscriber and advertiser preference. This technology enables publishers to offer advertisers access to subscribers who fit specific profiles -- like people who prefer to stay at !LAST HOTEL YOU STAYED AT OBTAINED FROM CREDIT CARD? when they travel or who want to read articles about innovation.
Theoretically, Time could cost-effectively publish, for example, a computer-customized California edition of Fortune featuring no cigarette or liquor ads but plenty of computer ads and articles targeted to Ed -- a nonsmoking, teetotaling data-processing manager in Encino named Edward Smith who loves to hack around on his PC.
But by imitating the techniques of junk mail, doesn't the magazine run the risk of becoming junk mail?
Again, the driving force here is data -- not an inner vision or impulse that guides the creator. The irony is that these technologies depersonalize both the person who receives these publications and the people who create them. Instead of writing with a genuine person in mind, text is constructed and wrapped around a multivariate model of who the editors/marketers "think" the individual is. Can you imagine a Fitzgerald or a Proust writing a novel for such "datamythical" creatures? For that matter, can you imagine a David Ogilvie or a Bill Bernbach writing advertisements for them?
I'm all in favor of research to get a better grasp of the audience, but these techniques are used less to gain insight than to generate leads and false bonhomie. Advertisers and editors would be idiotic to ignore market research. But they'd be just as idiotic to think that the ability to "personalize" a publication using market research is what would make it compelling. American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s great advertisement wasn't "Reach out and exchange data with someone" -- it was "Reach out and touch someone." Too many are confusing information with intimacy. That confusion undermines the value of both.
As a rule, new technologies create more options than they foreclose. The sad thing about "personalized" publishing, !YOUR NAME?, is that most of those options don't seem to offer very much of value.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.