Wearables and pre-cognitive marketing | DMA

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Wearables and pre-cognitive marketing


Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard University and earlier research led by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Plank Institute have found supporting evidence that subconscious thinking impacts conscious thinking, without the person even knowing it.

They scanned the brains of volunteers who held a button in each hand and were told to push one of the buttons whenever they wanted to. The scientists could tell from the scans which hand the participants were going to use as early as 10 seconds before the volunteers were even aware that they had made up their mind.

This suggests that in order to make a truly objectified decision we need to train ourselves to re-think – because our subconscious has already decided for us. It’s called a ‘gut-feeling’.

Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain explains: “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot function on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention.”

So what has all this got to do with Wearables?

The research teams made their measurements by observing minute changes in temperature and micro patterns of activity in the front polar cortex – that's the forehead area of the brain. Our skin also reacts to our state of mind. It becomes more or less warm, moist and conductive if we are angry, frightened, happy or sad. While it is far harder to differentiate specific mental states from changes in skin than the brain, it is still plausible to gather a general picture.

Among the many sensors to be found inside wearables are those that measure galvanic skin response (GSR). They measure the electrical conductivity of the skin. Within a wearable this information can be processed, and an app can respond with notifications and suggestions.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit ‘minority report’, you’ll be surprised that its already been done.

As early as 1995 MIT developed a GSR sensor to warn patients of impending seizures, up to 20 minutes before they know about it! Since then it has been commercialised in various guises – emotional marketing, sports training and health.

Real-time big data analytics already focuses on sentiment, applying various fuzzy logic and statistical methods to derive a useful data set to work with. And it works. Sentiment is strongly related to emotional state. Once we have an idea of what the customer is ‘feeling’ the opportunity to market is there to be seized.

The widespread take up of wearables offers marketers a new method of contextualization – sensing emotional state through physiological changes.

Mainstream pre-cognitive marketing isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

Privacy Issues

The prospective benefits of automated contextualisation, proximity marketing and device tracking are all counter-weighted with an Orwellian risk.

Is that risk high enough to forgo the immeasurable benefits wearable technologies like GSR offer?

A conundrum indeed. That's why controls are required. That includes preventing manufacturers and coders making default privacy decisions for us or burying permissions in mounds of legal gibberish. Users must be made aware that they have a choice.

The DMA has a deeply responsible role in this debate. We are ideally positioned to set balanced standards. Our behaviour and self-governance will set the scene.

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