Are We Guilty of “Numbed” Marketing?

BombsightA few years ago, I was moderating a panel on mobile advertising. The room was full of marketers. After much discussion about targeting and the ability to track consumers both geographically and behaviorally, one audience member lamented, “Why don’t the carriers just share the subscriber information? They know who they are. They know addresses, family status, credit history, demographics – they have all that information. Then we could really pinpoint our market.”

I had to jump in. I asked this room full of marketers to indicate who would like to have access to that information by raising their hand. The entire room answered in the affirmative. Then I added a twist…

“Okay. Everyone in this room has a mobile phone. Who, as subscribers, would want your carrier sharing that information with anyone who wanted to target you? Keep your hands up.”

Hands wavered. You could almost hear the switch clicking in their brains. Every hand slowly went down.

That story came to mind last week when I read the following passage in a book by Arthur J. Dyck called “Rethinking Rights and Responsibilities: The Moral Bonds of Community,”

“In his study, (Robert Jay) Lifton takes note of a phenomenon he calls “numbed warfare,” a mode of combat in which participants have psychological contacts only with their military cohorts and their own equipment…. Lifton describes research that found a striking correlation between altitude and potential for guilt:

‘B-52 pilots and crews bombing at high altitudes saw nothing of their victims and spoke exclusively of professional skill and performance…’

Lifton calls these B-52 pilots “numbed warriors.” What have been numbed are their empathic emotions: ‘lacking emotional relations with his victims, the numbed warrior receives from them very little of the kind of feedback that could permit at least one layer of his mind to perceive them as human.’”

That may seem like a horrific parallel to draw with marketing, but the similarities are striking. One of the ways warriors have always desensitized themselves is by thinking of the enemy in non-human terms, either as a faceless, monolithic group, or by assigning a dehumanizing (and usually derogatory) label to them. We marketers have been doing this for years. What is more dehumanizing than taking a thinking, feeling person and calling them a “consumer?” Someone once described consumers as “mindless wallets eating shit and crapping cash.”

Warriors have to clearly delineate the concepts of “us” and “them” in order to do what they have to do. But as my room full of marketers realized, when it comes to marketing – “them” is “us.” In a recent PEW study, 80% of social network users were worried that their data would be accessed by advertisers. That means 4 out of 5 people don’t trust you, Ms. or Mr. Marker. They’d rather you didn’t know who they were. If you knocked on their door, they wouldn’t answer. Maybe it’s because you keep calling them a consumer or a target market. I’m also betting that if you were asked that question, you’d answer the same way. Because even though you’re a marketer, you don’t trust other marketers.

In a recent interview, I was asked what one piece of advice I would pass on to other marketers. I said, “Be an empathic marketer.” Or, in plainer terms, don’t numb yourself to your market. I’m not alone in saying we can be better. Fellow Spinner Cory Treffileti talked about the importance of emotion in ad messages. And Katie Meier recently asked the question, “What if data wasn’t about numbers, but instead we made it about the people the numbers represent?”

Technology has put us at a crossroads. We could use it to further distance and dehumanize our market, turning real people into digital data points. We could become “high-altitude” marketers, never coming face to face with the humans we’re trying to connect with.

Or, we could use it to create, as my friend Scott Brinker likes to say, “markets of one.” But before we do that, we have to make them want to listen to us. They have to answer their door if we knock. And that will take some work. We have to start treating them the way we want to be treated, when we’re not wearing our “marketing” hats.

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