Adland dissects Yuval Noah Harari’s five threats to creativity
The historian’s latest work presents a dystopian vision of our present. Here, we find out what those in the industry make of Harari’s predictions of an advertising-free future.
So you’ve read Sapiens? You’ve all heard what the acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks about creativity? In simple terms, he credits all of human history with the power of storytelling. Our ability to construct fictions and persuade thousands, millions of people to believe them and collaborate is the reason we have succeeded.
Safe to assume then that in his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the great storyteller will fashion more ideas of how human creativity will shape the future world? Or maybe not.
The dystopian vision he actually paints, that humanity is building its own redundancy, takes specific aim at our own species: the ad creative. With almost breezy confidence, he predicts that “once algorithms choose and buy things for us, the traditional advertising industry will go bust”.
Data giants such as Google, Harari argues, capture our attention in order to harvest immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue.
This data hoard opens a path to a radically different business model in which the first victim will be the advertising industry itself.
“Consider Google,” Harari says. “Google wants to reach the point where we can ask it anything and get the best answer in the world.
“What will happen once we can ask Google: ‘Hi Google, based on everything you know about cars and based on everything you know about me (including my needs, my habits, my views on global warming and even my opinion about Middle Eastern politics) – what is the best car for me?’
“If Google can give us a good answer to that, and if we learn by experience to trust Google’s wisdom instead of our own easily manipulated feelings, what could possibly be the use of car advertisements?”
All a bit far-fetched? Then ask yourself how much you trust Google to get you from place A to place B. Compared with 10, even five years ago, we are more likely to ask Google how to get to Leamington Spa than to trust road directions, maps, navigational instincts, even (old-school) satnav. It just works, and we trust Google’s wisdom implicitly.
So what do advertising and marketing experts make of the notion that “once algorithms choose and buy stuff for us” the agency business will “go bust”? And what does this all mean for creativity and the people who make and tell brilliant stories?
MullenLowe London Chief Strategy Officer Jo Arden shares her reaction to the following five threats to creativity as suggested by Harari.
- By not regulating the ownership of data, we risk concentrating all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite
Concentrating all data in the hands of the few is terrifying, but the threat to advertising it poses is way down the list of concerns. The bigger threat is to how that concentration can undermine independent thought in politics and society. We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which our data has been used for nefarious means. And while we’re catching up, the small elite is sharing its privilege with people whose aim it is to manipulate and control populations at scale – pitting societies against each other, promoting hatred and fear. I’m more bothered about the potential for that to fuck us all than I am about whether it will be harder to sell stuff.
2. We’re no longer customers, we’re all products of “attention merchants” like Google and Facebook
I take an optimistic view of people and I think we are some significant way away from submitting completely to the will of Google and Facebook. The vast majority of decisions are still made at point of purchase (online or in bricks and mortar). They are triggered by countless factors, only some of which originate from an algorithm. It is a relatively new and contributing force in how we choose what to buy or buy into, but the value of real experience, in the real world, still plays the bigger part. To follow a logic that says there are tools that can make better decisions for us, and so we will use them, is fundamentally flawed. Humans delight in confoundingly irrational views, and in changing them the next day – I believe (and hope) that uniquely human condition will be impossible to change.
3. The transfer of authority from humans to algorithms will include the authority to choose and buy things
Unquestionably there will be certain products that lend themselves to being chosen by an algorithm, but not all products and not entirely. Insurance was the first category to embrace automated decision-making – aggregators gave us the chance to input our own data to an algorithm and be served a result. They transformed the category. But the power of brand stalled its entire automation. Some brands opted out of aggregators and strengthened their appeal in doing so; others invest more heavily in brand-building, because marketers know that, when presented with a top-10 best-fit providers, about 90% of us opt for the first one we have heard of – even if that happens to be number five on the list. Brands give us comfort and reassurance, they are part of how we see ourselves and want others to see us too. Product and brand are inadvisably linked. Some consumers will happily give over decisions to Google about products they don’t have a major view on – but it’ll be a minority, we carry too much in-built knowledge to completely turn our back on it. How many of us go with what Alexa suggests is the best recipe for cottage pie over the one our mums taught us?
4. Google and Facebook are more interested in the data they harvest than the revenue they generate from ads
Data supports their hard-nosed bid for that revenue, and advertising is a significant part of that. Advertising comes in many forms – from ads to search. I think they are as interested in that as in the many other ways they generate revenue.
5. If we learn by experience to trust Google’s wisdom instead of our own easily manipulated feelings, what’s the use of ads?
The answer is in the question – decisions are rarely logical. Our feelings are easily manipulated, not just by ads, but by the world around us, other people, our mood, the weather. While, clearly, the sophistication of algorithms will increase, I don’t believe Google will be able to dissuade a hungry man from a Double Whopper. Good advertising is part of culture. Fact-based needs, such as finding directions, lends itself to mental-outsourcing; being moved to buy or do something will still need the crafting of narrative at which advertising is unbeatable. The two work together, Google can identify the right time or place to put information in front of someone, but it still needs to be packaged beautifully – that’s where we come in.
Jo Arden, Chief Strategy Officer, MullenLowe London
Read the opinions from the other experts here
This article was originally published on The Drum