A few weeks ago I encountered a bizarre advertisement on Facebook that caught my attention:
I spent a moment trying to puzzle out how a decapitated baby head related to social work. The whole point of course is that it doesn’t—the creepy-baby-head-ad I encountered is a classic shock & awe Facebook ad, determined to capture a user’s attention with a strange picture with hopes that you might be curious enough to click through.
It’s quite the lowly form of advertising, banking on Facebook users’ curiosity alone to drive clicks. But this idea of embracing the “silly” factor that is ever-present on the internet can be successful for some, like the Plenty Of Fish ads made in Microsoft Paint that outperformed sleek looking ads at a shocking rate of 2.8:1.
In addition to relying heavily on shock & awe, Facebook ads are problematic in that they advertise to the people we want to be rather than the people that we actually are.
Someone can “Like” Lamborghinis and yachts all day long, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are financially capable of buying such big ticket items. There is certainly an element of window shopping involved with Facebook ads.
Microsoft recently revealed in a patent application that they are toying with the idea of using the Kinect sensor to detect a user’s emotional state by analyzing facial expressions and body language. As News Scientist says:
“Just as advertisers currently bid on certain search terms, the patent suggests a company could choose which emotions would match to its adverts. For example, happy people are unlikely to click weight-loss ads, but they might be in the market for a new gadget. Meanwhile, sad people don’t want to hear about club nights…”
This could certainly be a game-changer for advertising—raise bids on crying people and add extra exclamation marks to ad-text aimed at happy people! Taking advantage of people’s emotional state for advertising purposes sounds dastardly but isn’t new—ads play off of cultural sentiments all the time. What is new is the precision of being able to recognize and act on immediate emotional states pertaining to the individual—whether in a moment of anguish or joy.
Naturally there are some positive ways emotion-recognizing technology could be used. If you’re depressed and prone to binge eating, a virtual exercise assistant might recognize this and suggest a bike ride before your speed-dial Domino’s and break open that six back of Bud. Or perhaps emotion-detecting technology could suggest a relaxing massage to a stressed-out individual at their wit’s end.
Naturally this new advertising technique is riddled with moral landmines. ReadWriteWeb notes,
“The ethical question is whether emotion-detecting ads are fair when they essentially manipulate us by playing on feelings that we may not even be aware that we’re experiencing. There are dozens of pending lawsuits against casinos that reeled in despondent and addicted gamblers when they were in dire straits, knowing those gamblers were looking for one last chance to win back their losses.”
Despite any positive effects emotion-detecting advertisements might bring, people do not like to be emotionally manipulated, especially by advertisements and especially when they’re depressed.
While emotion-detecting technology sounds exciting, people certainly don’t play Xbox to get a reality check. That our tools for escape might register our sadness or laughter, and then cater advertisements to this information, is fairly disturbing.
The truth hurts, and the outside world provides plenty of it. Let video game consoles and their counterparts remain the liars that they are, letting us forget for a while that we can’t blast lightning out of our robot suits, we won’t explore ancient temples and discover forgotten treasure, and we live in a world with no dragons or magic.
No one wants advertisements that see us the way we really are. That’s why I’ll take the Facebook ads, even if they don’t really work and are silly. At least Facebook ads cater to the dreamers, letting us imagine that maybe one day we really will write that novel or book that round-the-world ticket.
Facebook still shows me ads all the time about photography schools, because that was once something I was considering. Becoming an accomplished photographer has been since scooted to the back-burner. It’s something I still care about, but not quite the priority it was once.
Life happens, sometimes we don’t have time for all our dreams—but Facebook has your back. Facebook is like the wizened old mentor who reminds you to never give up on your dreams of being the greatest (pokemon master/ninja warrior/unicorn princess) the world has ever seen.
Facebook ads are immensely silly, and can be quite off-center when it comes to advertising. But we’re not ready for the hard-hitting truths that emotion-detecting-body-language-registering-super-technology is sure to bring. So go ahead Facebook, show me that weird decapitated baby head.
And who knows, maybe I will buy that Lamborghini—someday.
Megan Marrs is a veteran content marketer who harbors a love for writing, watercolors, oxford commas, and dogs of all shapes and sizes. When she’s not typing out blog posts or crafting killer social media campaigns, you can find her lounging in a hammock with an epic fantasy novel.
See other posts by Megan Marrs
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