Even if the idealization strategy is used, customers may see through the airbrushing. Undue comparison, with all its associated psychosocial baggage, could rear its ugly head: Young women who berate themselves for being fatter than Size 0 models could fixate on having skinnier avatars. Or the esteem of skinny boys could drop in the presence of their buff doppelgängers. And, since advertising history displayed insensitivity to race, sex, and class, it would be naive to believe that avatars with lighter skin and fancier bling couldn’t possibly get rolled out.
It’s possible that a dominant company could, taking a page from the Nintendo Wii, let users quickly design custom avatars that can be inserted into a range of fun and informative networking functions, but only so long as they also allow the images to be used for commercial purposes. For example, in order to send avatar-texts or avatar-e-mail, or to create avatar-status-updates, you might need to give the companies broadcasting Grandma’s favorite shows the right to bombard her with avatar ads, ones imploring her to buy little Johnny and Susie the latest overpriced toys. She could get powerful visual displays suggesting that her grandkids, who don’t make much time for her anyway, will like her even less if she doesn’t step up and make the purchases. When the practice matures, people might very well feel like social outcasts if they don’t participate.
The problem thus arises of whether it becomes too expensive to opt out of dominant norms. We already know that “the Facebook-free life has its disadvantages in an era when people announce all kinds of major life milestones on the Web.” The same may come to be said for those living off the avatar grid. To signal conformity, parents could end up bragging that little Johnny or Susie made it to the “avatar stage of development”—a point at which they can identify an avatar as a representation of themselves—before classmates.
To get a sense of how resonant these concerns are, we presented a modified version of the thought experiment to college students enrolled in a course on the philosophy of technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This scenario featured personalized avatars inserted into Internet ads—a possibility that future historians might call Targeted Online Advertising 2.0. To heighten the thought experiment, we visited RIT’s Motion Capture Room and demoed technology that quickly converts 2-D into 3-D images, explaining how advertisers could capitalize on similar tools. Braced for vocal concern and hot debate, we instead encountered perplexity. Most students weren’t too bothered. Frankly, they were surprised we expected trepidation.
Let’s imagine that we ran a similar thought experiment several years ago. Would students have been more agitated then? Probably. When social networking was in its infancy, thought experiments about new and transformative practices could seem startling; infringing on privacy and liberty could seem like a big deal. But now, things are different, at least for the younger, tech-savvy crowd. Generation Z can’t conceive of opting out of software that fuels mainstream social networking and online communication. Instead of worrying about major losses in privacy and liberty, they focus on peer behavior. If every else who matters accepts digital trade-offs, why make life hard by being an outlier? After all, the benefits appear to outweigh the costs, and adaptation seems inevitable. Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, believes that “young people do care about privacy,” but “they seem to be more concerned about parents, teachers or employers peeking at their online activity than privacy intrusions by marketers.”
The students might be right. But, then again, people regularly underestimate how easily their behavior can be modified. To the delight of ad executives, adults mistakenly believe that their preferences can be shaped only by powerful but regulated techniques, like subliminal advertising. Contrary to this folk psychology, current behavioral marketing trends are promising precisely because viewers powerfully respond to “relevancy” in targeted and contextual ads. Three questions thus arise. How much more persuasive power would come from adding the thought experiment features? If lots, how much is too much? And should the ability to think for ourselves be compromised, how long would it take regulators to acknowledge this truth and make appropriate adjustments? Polonetsky notes, “In its proposed new children’s privacy regulation, the FTC has already moved to restrict behavioral ads targeted to kids, without their parents express consent.” Protecting kids is always a step in the right direction. Crafting policy that protects adults without being too paternalistic is a more complicated endeavor.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.