• Transform magazine
  • July 18, 2024


How mimicking empathy is making brands look like psychopaths

Darren Savage

Over the past decade we’ve seen a significant increase in brands using short-term activation advertising. However, this has led to a corresponding downturn in how effective advertising can be for a brand to build a strong relationship with its consumers, writes Darren Savage, chief strategy officer at brand experience agency Tribal Worldwide.

This shift towards short term results looks good against efficiency metrics – they appear to prove things are going to plan and that no change is required. This makes them appealing for brands to use as a marketing tool as they are often easy to stick with, are relatively simple to produce, and are easy to understand.

However, focusing on efficiency comes at the expense of longer-term commercial gains. By cutting corners, brands are at risk of not seeing a bigger, long-term picture with a much more beneficial approach to the overall perception of their image.

Quick answers often mean ‘personalised’ ads and outreach campaigns which are powered by dumb algorithms. The result is an individual’s merest interest expressed in a product, often inadvertently, leading to them being stalked ‘sociopathically’ around the internet. Your brand will become unappealing if it begins to show up unannounced and unwanted.

The increase in brands using sales-based advertising is driving users away from once popular social media platforms.  A particular case in point is Instagram, which since being acquired by Facebook in 2012, has become one of the most egregious users of personalised ads. 

According to multiple data sources, including Trust Insights 12 Days of Data – 2020, this has resulted in a significant decline in user engagement with Instagram seeing a growing number of users abandoning the platform altogether.

This type of personalisation is causing more harm than good, as it is increasingly displaying itself as antisocial.

In everyday life, those who present with antisocial traits exhibit a lack of empathy and regard for those around them. If you apply this to brands, it has alarming parallels with the way they target consumers through personalisation.

It is the digital equivalent of a stranger in a café noticing you are reading the same book, then turning up at the same events as you suggesting you read vaguely similar authors to the first one you shared.

In real life, this conduct would be very odd. But when brands behave in a similar way, they justify their actions by consoling themselves with short-term ROI, but neglect to examine and measure the longer-term damage and decline in commercial effectiveness.

Personalisation per se is not the issue; it is the way user data is currently farmed, shared and exploited to serve up a relentless barrage of sales ads and fuel Zuckerberg and friends’ rampant venality.

The biggest barrier to change, is that there is no motivation to alter from the platforms because of the astounding amount of money that social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are making from surveillance capitalism.

Pernicious business models aside, the alternative is for brands to work with media owners to devise how they can develop a degree of empathy and a better understanding of the context within which brands and users share the same space. 

This means factoring more nuance and intelligence into algorithms so that communications are context sensitive. Brands need to recognise why someone is in a particular space, what their behaviours are and what their needs and expectations are – against which they can develop how to match these dynamics with more appropriate creative works.

Sometimes, this may mean absence is the most appropriate response. People will be thankful for the silence.