Marketing’s Black Mirror: Where the Technology Could Take Us

January 13, 2018

Black Mirror Logo

As we venture into a new year, many of us are embracing an optimistic view of the future and what’s to come. However, those people probably didn’t just get done watching the latest season of Black Mirror.

You’re aware of this if you’ve ever seen an episode of the Netflix sci-fi anthology show, but Black Mirror tends to cast a rather bleak outlook for humanity. Each story focuses on a different element of emerging technology, envisioning ominous (and ominously plausible) places where they could take our society.

This show is not for the faint of heart. Described frequently as a “Twilight Zone” for the modern era, its scenarios are often dystopic and utterly twisted. But the portrayals of the future in Black Mirror are also creative, clever, and thought-provoking. They challenge us as viewers to reflect on our own technological fixations, and ponder how our behaviors are (perhaps subconsciously) affected.

Binging through Season 4 left me in a pensive state, contemplating the ways in which marketing technology could alter my profession, and life, going forward. So as we look ahead to what’s in store for us in 2018 and beyond, let us peer into the black mirror in search of unanticipated consequences from our industry’s trendiest innovations.

[Warning: Though we’ll leave the new season alone, there may be some light spoilers from Seasons 1-through-3 below, so proceed at your own risk.]

Social Currency

One of the most unforgettable episodes of Black Mirror was “Nosedive,” the Season 3 premiere. The story depicts a future wherein every interaction receives a rating of one to five stars from each side -- a la Uber. But while a low user rating on Uber would only impact your ability to get a ride through the app, your average score in this world serves as an overall reflection of your socioeconomic status, determining your ability to qualify for discounts, upgrades, and other perks.

In “Nosedive,” the protagonist Lacie learns that she must reach a 4.5-star average rating in order to access reduced pricing for a luxury condo that would make it affordable. She sets out to raise her score, but through a series of misfortunes, ends up lowering it drastically. This leads to, essentially, a complete mental breakdown.

There are a number of intriguing aspects to this episode and the future it conceptualizes. The idea of social media ratings serving as a type of real-world currency isn’t far-fetched, especially as businesses increasingly come to recognize the commercial value of online influencers. China has already theorized a system of this sort, and even when there’s no number attached, the way we conduct ourselves on the web can greatly affect how we’re perceived away from it. It’s another reminder that we’re all wise to carefully manage our social presences, and build strategic relationships where we can.

On the flip side, the extremely phony interactions Lacie would engage in, hoping to boost her score with cringeworthy forced smiles and faux enthusiasm, reemphasized to me the importance of being authentic and genuine. 

Artificial Personalities

“Be Right Back,” the Season 2 premiere, ranks among the most unsettling entries in the Black Mirror anthology, largely because the premise is so believable.

This episode tells the story of woman named Martha whose boyfriend Ash dies in a car accident. Shortly after the incident, she learns that she is pregnant, exacerbating her grief. After some reluctance, she decides to a try a new AI product that analyzes an individual’s online interactions and social media profiles to create an algorithmic digital recreation of their likeness.

She quickly becomes dependent on the hauntingly realistic chatbot version of her lost lover, and even upgrades to an experimental new product that packs the personality into an android replica. But ultimately, she is left unsatisfied by the missing subtleties and intricacies of Ash’s character that weren’t captured by his online persona.

AI and chatbots are top-of-mind for forward-looking marketers. These technologies are becoming more and more prominent for brand-based initiatives, and are growing more sophisticated all the time. In fact, one company called Luka was actually developing a variation of the specific application portrayed in this episode.

I don’t think we’ll see marketing campaigns that invite users to converse with the dead anytime soon, but there’s no question that as chatbots keep getting smarter and more advanced, they’ll open new avenues for scalable engagement.

Vivid Virtual Reality

Imagine plugging into a virtual haunted house through a program that can assess your reactions to stimuli, and create customized scares based on your unique fears. This terrifying notion forms the basis for “Playtest,” an episode from Season 3 where a stranded young traveler in need of cash agrees to participate in a beta test for a new augmented reality experience.

Much like “Be Right Back,” “Playtest” taps into a couple of themes very relevant to today’s marketers; in this case, virtual/augmented reality and machine learning. The race is currently on to see who can leverage these technologies in a way that resonates with customers.

IDC forecasts that spending on VR and AR will skyrocket from $11.4 billion in 2017 to $215 billion in 2021. Machine learning isn’t being utilized by marketers to unlock anyone’s deepest fears, but it’s already proving helpful for optimizing paid search.

Reflecting on Marketing Technology

Per creator Charlie Brooker, “The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone." We’ve all had those moments where we look at ourselves in a mirror introspectively, but this fascinating series urges us to gaze at the devices that have become so ingrained in our lives, and reflect on our relationships with them.

I’m excited to watch marketing technology continue its rapid evolution in 2018. But after another sobering season of Black Mirror, I also find myself appreciating the human side of business just that much more.

Like it or not, technology continues to grow its imprint across all facets of marketing and advertising. Subscribe to the LinkedIn Marketing Blog and we’ll keep you up to speed on all the new trends and developments as they happen.