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  • Debate: Does AI-driven marketing threaten consumer choice?


    Debate: Does AI-driven marketing threaten consumer choice?

    By James Delves


    AI empowers consumers, allowing us to efficiently cut thousands of options online to just the few that really meet our needs - but does it? Does AI actually just create the illusion of choice, threatening the shopping experience as we know it, by removing free thought? A highly sensitive and complex topic I think you’d agree, but one I was fortunate enough to be part of at the recent Debating Group at the House of Commons.


    The debate titled: ‘Does AI-driven marketing threaten consumer choice?’ was sponsored by the Institute of Promotional Marketing and Chaired by the Lord Black of Brentwood (Deputy Chairman of the Telegraph Media Group).


    The hotly argued debate swung from side-to-side as key industry figures argued the pros and cons of AI-driven marketing. See below the key points from the argument so you make your own mind up. 



    Rob Sellars (Managing Director, Grey Shopper) started by paraphrasing Jurassic Park: “Technologists pushing for an increasing role for Artificial Intelligence in consumer and shopper channels are ‘so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should’. Sellers argued that choice is an essential component of a healthy modern economy and the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence as a means to ‘improve’ the way that brands and retailers sell to their audiences creates more problem than it solves.


    Artificial Intelligence is another word for algorithms that try to make sense of the tsunami of data, allowing us as consumers to make choices quicker. Our brains are already super computers, hard-wired with millions of years of evolved 'algorithms’ that have helped us become the most successful species on the planet. To get to where we are, we have had to consciously and subconsciously make choices and we get a sense of reward when we make a good one. These feelings are deeply rooted in our humanity – which drives us as individuals: to hunt, to provide and to explore. Divesting how we make decisions, in particular the products and services we buy, is something, by its very definition, not human, it is artificial – not only do we undermine marketing, deeply threaten consumer choice, but potentially damage one of the best and fundamental components of who we are.


    To explain it in a real life experience, Marc Curtis (Ideation Manager, Lyreco Group) presented a hypothetical example where he took us to dinner, suggesting the dress code, menu, day, time and type of restaurant. “After we’ve eaten we can discuss the choices I made for us and that will help for the next time. In fact, I can ensure that if you like the food and location, we will only ever eat at that place again. Plus I can ensure that the menu only has stuff you’ve been shown to enjoy (or variations)”. He pointed out that there are certain words in this scenario that are being used to make us feel comfortable with the removal of choice: recommendation; curated; personalised; frictionless. He contended that the language of choice is being used against us, to enable platforms and companies to sell things to us that they think we will buy based on a number of factors. The main one is the same thing that led to the famous social media filter bubble. Algorithms are optimised to show us things that have a higher probability to resonate with us. But the problem is that we also never get to see the things we have never experienced, which could expand our horizons. Algorithms can be programmed to 'up’ the serendipity of their functionality, but ultimately the shops that are driven by AI are there to make money, not provide us with a more rounded experience of life. The default is always going to be what stands the best chance of resulting in sale.



    However, Dr Windsor Holden, Juniper Research, disagreed with those who are suspicious of what AI has to offer: that, rather than making life easier for us, it will narrow our horizons and drive us down a path of the familiar. He looked at the issue first from the perspective of retailers and marketers and then from that of the consumer. The rise of e-Commerce and ubiquitous connectivity has generated new opportunities for retailers to capture and use a tremendous amount of data. Properly analysed, this data can offer a range of useful insights for the business, enabling it to differentiate and remain competitive.


    Amazon has more than 530 million items available on its virtual shelves. If you wander into its Home and Kitchen section, you could be faced with 74 million items! Windsor Holden commented, “When I think how long it physically takes me to walk round IKEA looking for moulded plastic – pausing for meatballs – how long is it going to take me to go through 74 million items!” Time is of the essence. Shopper expectations have evolved rapidly. They want to be able to buy products wherever they are, whatever time it is, easily and without friction – and they want these products as soon as possible.


    This array of choice can overwhelm the customer, meaning they are unlikely to purchase a product or will prefer to do so in-store, where a shop assistant may be able to direct them. AI offers the possibility for this in-store experience to be replicated online. AI systems can be utilised to help narrow down choices, personalise product catalogues or to find similar products using visual search.



    The vote on the night finished 35 to 19 against the motion – concluding that AI-driven marketing does not threaten consumer choice. What did you think?


    It’s clear AI provides a valuable tool in the modern shopping experience. Like me I am sure you don’t have time to review the 530 million items on Amazon just to purchase a new pair of sunglasses to help with the sunny weather we are currently having. It’s not just us as consumers who benefit – better quality data equates to better business decisions such as what consumers really want, where to open businesses and how to spend marketing budgets effectively, driving customer loyalty.


    However you feel reading this, I am sure AI will continue to play a both at work and home lives. As marketeers, AI will make our lives easier and more efficient, allowing us to generate insights from huge volumes of data, removing the tedious guesswork which in turn will allow us to focus our efforts on the creative and strategic side of a campaign. As long as we don’t as a sector forget that ‘people still buy from people’ and that it’s often human characteristics like passion and empathy that make our campaigns successful, there should be a place in our lives of AI.

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