Is ‘Minority Report’ the Future of DM?

I saw “Minority Report” the other day. This futuristic action thriller should be required viewing for every database and Internet marketer. Not that the plot was so great, nor the acting, nor the character development. They were pretty weak.

What was interesting for us marketers was the Philip K. Dick vision of the future of product promotion. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s what it looked like. The hero, played by Tom Cruise walks into a shopping mall in the year 2054 and is greeted by name. Disembodied, automated voices come out of nowhere to offer him all kinds of products. “John Anderton, you look thirsty. Have a Guinness,” he hears as he happens to pass a billboard for the beer. Weird.

When he goes into a clothing store, it gets even weirder. Similar voices — melodious, female voices — are heard coming from the ceiling. “John, wouldn’t you like some pants to go with those shirts you bought last time?” Or something like that. You get the idea.

The scene felt creepy to me. And not just because the mall identified Anderton using some kind of science fiction eyeball scan. Anderton seemed to take the scan in stride; maybe he couldn’t even feel it. He also seemed to ignore the persuasive voices calling his name as he made his way around the mall. But I was struck.

When you think about it, the scene represents the logical extension of what we database marketers do: We analyze prior purchase patterns and demographic characteristics, and we develop targeted messages intended to upsell and cross-sell effectively.

For database marketers, the movie raises two big questions about our work, our industry and its future.

First question: Is this the way people are going to buy? Buyer behavior changes regularly in response to new technologies – think credit cards, ATMs, e-commerce, Mobil Speedpass. But will consumers appreciate personalized greetings from disembodied voices when they walk around malls?

I don’t mean the creepy eyeball scan. Let’s assume that’s a sci-fi thing, even though you could argue that sci-fi things tend to become reality.

My question is how our relevant, targeted messages, beamed to individuals at retail, are going to work. “Work” meaning lift revenue and profit enough to pay for themselves. Will they really make customers feel like spending more money with us?

Next question: Are the benefits of this relevant, targeted messaging going to be overwhelmed by consumer fears of Big Brother? Maybe George Orwell was off by 100 years, and the Orwellian future is still to come.

Can we marketers manage this delicate balance? Judging from my experiences with graduate students, it’s going to be a challenge. When we discuss database marketing — and these students are committed to marketing as a profession — their tendency is to ricochet between awe at the opportunity to target customers effectively and extreme discomfort at the notion that marketers are gathering information about people’s personal lives. If the “Minority Report” scene gives someone like me the creeps, we’re all in trouble.

Where do we want our industry to go? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean we should do it. Our challenge will be to define the future of database marketing and manage it well.

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