New digital and social marketing technologies use market segmentation to target adverts towards a particular audience. With their 2008 Arts: audiences Insight work Arts Council England created an extremely useful segmentation resource, which has been incredibly valuable to many cultural organisations. But without attention to detail this type of approach can also be counterproductive, with precisely the wrong type of adverts being presented to a potential consumer on the basis of a spurious and incomplete profile. This can turn the customer off to the point where they want nothing to do with online advertising online completely. I use Adblocker for just this reason.
As new technologies begin to breach the barriers between online and real world marketing techniques, the importance of considering these ethical issues is increasing. For example, at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, delegates wore unique RFID badges. As they moved around the conference venue, display screens showed information appropriate to each particular individual – not too far away from Minority Report’s tailored advertising, present in every area of your life.
There are ethical implications to this kind of targeted marketing approach, taking parts of people’s identity and using it put them into categories, then using this to determine what you give to them.
Charles Raab argues in his work on Difference and Categorization that, ‘The ability of online technologies to abet these processes through the fine-grained behavioral and personal data they collect and “mine”, or analyze, implicates them in social sorting.’ I would certainly agree that this sort of targeted, categorised approach could be exclusionary. Even when the intention is to support isolated or vulnerable groups ethical issues apply. What you access, and how you access it, can heavily influence your future choices, opportunities and aspirations.
This is a hotly debated topic, but its clear implications for the cultural sector, particularly publicly funded organisations, has not been discussed. If you are simply chasing money and only targeting the audience segment that attends your venue, or accesses your material the most, then you risk shutting people out who might otherwise want to know about it.
Another part of the problem is that access to specific data streams is also self selective. We elect to access certain media, especially online where you can choose who to follow on Twitter, what blogs to read, which updates and news you receive. This can mean that you lose perspective. Social-technical thinkers, such as Eli Pariser, have called these ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘narrowcasting’.
One of the biggest social values that the arts and culture provide for society and individuals is diversity of perception and experience, and we should be careful to protect this. If we just attempt to communicate with what we perceive our audiences to be, or even those we think are ‘quick wins’, then this role can be weakened. Publicly funded bodies in particular might be considered to have a duty to try and reach as broad a section of that public as possible, and there are some fantastic examples of arts and cultural organisations undertaking work to reach the harder to engage market segments.
I’m sure there is a multiplicity of creative and intelligent ways cultural communicators can respond to this problem. As a simple example, in any thoughtfully targeted marketing piece or in any self selected view, having a ‘something completely different’ section, that shows you something that is outside of your regular viewing. You just don’t know who might be interested.