If you like that, you may also not like this
The future of advertising has arrived. And it totally stinks. I was looking up "Hannah Montana" on the Internet to answer a query from a young reader. (This singer’s movie opens over most of Asia this month.) A note popped up on the Google results screen: "Meet girls who look like Hannah Montana on the Shek Pai Wan Resettlement Estate!"
Huh? How come clones of blonde starlets in glittery clothes are hanging out in such an odd-sounding place? I asked my colleague Eddie if he’d checked this out. "It’s next-gen advertising," he said. "Massive computers work out where you are and point you to stuff you’d like in your neighbourhood."
How incredibly clever! Or at least it would have been if it HAD been my neighbourhood. I’d never heard of the place mentioned, which sounded like a refugee camp in Darfur.
It was nearly lunchtime and I still had Google up so I did a search for eating places, typing in "Sri Lankan food". A new message popped up: "Find hot new restaurants, bars and nightclubs at the Shek Pai Wan Resettlement Estate."
Clearly this odd-sounding district was the happening place. Not only was it crawling with international rock babes, but you could get a decent curry there. Party time!
Switching to Google Map I discovered that the district was around the back of a fishing village half way between my home and my office. A short bus ride later, I was there. It turned out to be a suspiciously dull lane with trees on one side and crumbly municipal buildings on the other.
There were no Hannah Montana lookalikes anywhere to be seen. In fact, the youngest women there appeared to be in their early nineties. There were not a lot of blondes. In fact, no one seemed to have much hair of any color, especially the women. (In that regard, your columnist fitted in very well.)
And the phrase "restaurants, bars and nightclubs" turned out to be a slight exaggeration. There was a hole-in-the-wall shop selling boxed tea and adult diapers.
That night, I shared this tragic experience with my mentor/bartender. He told me Eddie was right. Something called "targeted recommendations" are the hot new thing in advertising. But they didn’t work. "Look at a product on Amazon, a link on Google or a video on YouTube and supercomputers work out your location and your personality and find things you can’t resist buying," he said.
My laptop was in my bag, so we decided to experiment. The bartender typed in a request on Amazon to buy a "shaver for men with hairy backs". There turned out to be quite a few of these.
And true enough, he also got an on-screen list of recommended products that the Amazon computer decided that a hairy-backed person like him would like to have. It said he also needed (and this is not a joke, you can try this yourself) a construction worker’s hard hat, a 10-pack of Neopolitan ice cream, a deluxe rat trap and a video called "Girls Gone Wild 2: Best Breasts Ever".
I laughed at the absurdity of the recommendations made. But he just looked amazingly guilty. Hey, you know what? Perhaps it does work.
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