Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Limits Of Persuasive Realities: Hacking The Brain Stem With VR Marketing Technologies

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 8, 2017

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Successful technologies start life by being good enough to be useful. Could some technologies become unbelievably good at what they do—and become too good to be used?

Todays marketing technologies have improved greatly thanks to all that personal data we constantly give away. And they are about to rocket to a new level.

With the addition of Virtual Reality environments bolstered by artificial intelligence and personalization — it will be possible to create the Dream Marketing Machine.

Prime the Dream Machine with any Brand and it will reliably churn out passionate and emotionally committed customers. You’ll get Fanboys and Fangirls by the stadium-load and for pennies on the dollar that Apple pays in marketing costs.

We could be very close to this Dream Marketing Machine. 

At a recent event hosted by SpiritualVR  (photo above) panelist Anastasiya Sharkova said she was deeply moved by her first experience with virtual reality (VR) a title called theBlu:Encounter in which you go eye to eye with a blue whale.

She said the experience was so overwhelming it bypassed all reason and logic. She knew it was all computer generated yet when she looked into eye of the giant she felt a deep emphatic connection with the artificial whale that lasted for days.

And she used a lot less water for the next two weeks.

This scares me. What if the Blue Whale represents a brand such as AT&T and I’m suddenly emotionally bonding with a commercial organization and I can’t control it?

We know VR can affect behavior because it is already used in therapeutic applications treating post traumatic stress disorders.

Persuasive Realities…

Yuval Boger, CEO of open-source VR tech design company Sensics says there is already strong interest in marketing applications. "There are some excellent opportunities to create powerful branded VR experiences."

- But would you willingly agree to a VR experience that you knew was designed to persuade you and manipulate your emotions for commercial gain? And then continue to influence your behavior long after the event?

- Would you allow the Disney whale to try to emotionally bond with your child?

- What if your new job required a swim with the company culture whale as part of HR's on-boarding?

- What if your government insists you swim with its patriotic whale?

Don't get hung up on these balaenopteran examples. The creature will be chosen and shaped just for you -- for maximum empathy.

Hacking the brainstem

Mass media critic Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s was alarmed by the effects on people from images on the surface of spherical cathode ray screens watched from afar.

VR immerses you inside a sphere of reality where its creator controls every aspect of your visual and auditory world. Marketing has never ever had so much control.

Marketing can use VR to step over your talent for reason and logic and try to tap right into your emotions much as in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash — hacking the brain stem — the oldest part of the brain. 

But who has the right to access our emotions? The government? Hollywood? Or anyone at any time and in any way?

If these technologies of persuasion become so incredibly good at what they do— and they will eventually reach that point — then they become too good to be used.

Society gains nothing by exposing its people to powerful methods designed to embed a long lasting emotional loyalty to organizations with self-interested agendas. 

But until we study and understand these technologies of persuasion and how to protect ourselves — marketers will be rushing into VR campaigns faster than Elon Musk in a Hyperloop pod.  

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The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.




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