May 29, 2007 6:29 pm

Google data versus human nature

Now I am going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog. “No, thank you. If I let you on my back, you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic of that?” (For scorpions always try to be logical.) “If I sting you, you will die and I will drown.” So the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river he felt a terrible pain and realised that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I cannot help it – it is my nature.”

Orson Welles told this story to show the importance of understanding human nature. If the frog had known the scorpion’s true nature he would still be alive.

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Today, the world’s great consumer goods companies are agog at the potential of the internet to identify “human nature”, measure it and control it; at how Google’s systematic, logical computation can lead the advertiser into an earthly paradise of universal enlightenment – where all the problems of selling and marketing are solved by the same method: the method of data.

Haunted by the pronouncement of the founder of Unilever that, “Half my advertising is wasted but I don’t know which half,” marketers have long sought a set of testable rules about selling as robust as the laws of physics. So they are understandably mesmerised by the possibility that the wastage involved in the $600bn spent annually on advertising can be eliminated at the touch of a button.

First, under the Yellow Pages model of advertising known as “Search”, advertisers are relieved of the burden of addressing those who are not interested in buying their product. If I am selling washing machines, why waste money on costly advertisements for people who are not in the market for a washing machine at the time? How much better if I could talk only to people who are just about to buy a washing machine.

Second, the advertiser is said to have been disadvantaged by lack of data about human nature. The proponents of this theory point out that the amount of data stored on computers last year is equal to the sum of all previously recorded human knowledge; 74,000 times all the books in the US Library of Congress. So now, they say, we can go beyond mere “demographics” and “buying habits” to reach our target market. You could always reach women in Vogue, and gardeners in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, but now internet data technology can provide “personal profiling” or “strategic targeting” – an intimate knowledge of who you are, your true nature. As the founder of Google says, it can tell you: “What to do tomorrow.”

No wonder people are so excited about all the saving of money this knowledge could bring.

Unfortunately, it will not work out quite like that.

All of us know that the sensations produced by the same object can vary with the circumstances. Lukewarm water will seem hot to a cold hand and cold to a hot hand. Colours look very different through a microscope. Even the sun in the heavens we see only as it was eight minutes before.

The commercial proof of this was best explained by Britain’s most successful newspaper publisher, the late Viscount Rothermere . When challenged on why he did not conduct more research among Daily Mail readers to find out what they wanted, he said this type of data would be unhelpful. Newspapers were emotional items, he said, because: “Getting someone else’s newspaper is like getting into someone else’s bath after they’ve just left it.”

He said it was not that easy. If it were, it would have been the researchers sitting behind the desk of Lord Northcliffe, the Mail’s founder, not him.

It is an inconvenient and stubborn fact that outside Newton’s universe, where physical laws govern reality, the world is conditioned by perception. And, as Freud’s Law of Ambivalence stated, human beings are so complicated that they can love and hate the same object at the same time.

People do not know what they want until a brilliant person shows them. Henry Ford confirmed the point. Asked if he had carried out research before he invented the Model T Ford, he replied: “If I had asked people what they wan­ted, I would have built a faster horse.”

Human nature is not amenable to prediction based on the trends or tendencies prevailing at the time. It is amenable to startling creativity of the kind practised by great artists, directors, writers, musicians, actors, who know how to touch a chord in humans everywhere. They are the people that are needed to help advertisers navigate the internet because, as Aristotle knew 2,000 years ago: “Fire burns both here and in Persia. But what is thought just changes before our eyes. The decision rests with perception.”

If anybody should know this it is the founding geniuses of Google – the living embodiment of the irrational human dream of “two men in a garage” who change the world.

Lord Saatchi is an executive director of M&C Saatchi

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