Monday 8 July 2024

Synthetic, fake or just sh*t?

Fur, leather, meat - when you don’t want to wear or eat the real thing, there are alternatives. These are often described as “synthetic”, meaning that they’ve been been artificially produced in order to closely imitate the natural product. 

As well as the “artificial/not natural” connotations, “synthetic” also has associations of insincerity or affectedness. Fake. But fake can be a positive too, especially if presented as a clever alternative to using up natural resources, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.

I’m a bit slow off the mark, I admit. I only consciously heard the phrase “synthetic data” a couple of months ago in a seminar about “The Future of Measurement.” It was used in this context for data generated by AI to patch holes. This made me a little uneasy, but I brushed it off - after all, we’ve been patching holes in data via statisitcal modelling and analysis for as long as I’ve been in this business, and no doubt before that.

But the mention sparked a memory from another seminar, or something I read in the marketing press. That market research organisations such as Kantar are busy with R&D on “synthetic samples” which can generate “human-style responses.”

Does the euphemistic “synthetic sample” really mean fake people?

A year ago, Kantar were still moderately cautious about “synthetic samples”.  While AI has some great applications in market research (coding open-ended responses is an obvious example), the article points out some of the shortcomings of using AI as a substitute for human respondents. For example, look at the differences here:

I’m not surprised that the AI is more enthusiastic than real people about statements that sound AI-generated. Who in their right mind would agree to gobbledegook such as “my product is a way for me to bond/connect with others who share my passion”? Particularly if it’s bog cleaner or something.

The article concludes that: 

Our conclusion is that right now, synthetic sample currently has biases, lacks variation and nuance in both qual and quant analysis. On its own, as it stands, it’s just not good enough to use as a supplement for human sample.

And Kantar advise a blended approach based on real people and supplemented with AI.

Fast-forward a year and Kantar are far more gung-ho about it all. Theyve launched an AI Lab and appointed a Chief AI Scientist . And theres a new GenAI marketing assistant, too. 

Competitive pressure, the race to be first, client demands for faster, faster - or genuine innovation and leadership? Who knows - but Kantar are not alone. Mark Ritson has written enthusiastically about his chums at an outfit called Evidenza.AI

Evidenza say we survey AI copies of your customers to build finance-friendly sales and marketing plans ... we generate hundreds of synthetic customers based on your product category ... we test your messaging with synthetic customers.

Meaning, I guess, use AI to generate marketing communication and throw it to the customer copies to get a tick on that box. No messy humans involved.

Self-fulfilling prophecy? Can we look forward to synthetic sales, too?

Cory Doctorow takes it a few leaps further in his brilliantly-titled critical piece, The Coprophagic AI crisis. From warnings about botshit ("inaccurate or fabricated content shat out at scale”) and human-created content sinking in the cesspit ("As the web becomes an anaerobic lagoon for botshit, the quantum of human-generated “content” in any internet core sample is dwindling to homeopathic levels.) he goes on to consider the consequences should AI Search really take off:

The question is, why the fuck would anyone write the web if the only “person” who can find what they write is an AI’s crawler, which ingests the writing for its own training, but has no interest in steering readers to see what you’ve written? If AI search ever becomes a thing, the open web will become an AI CAFO and search crawlers will increasingly end up imbibing the contents of its manure lagoon.

Food for thought, and I feel distinctly queasy.

It’s another example of a contained system or black box that’s easy to control. Like home-grown problem: solution advertising.

And the answer is to get out of the system, go back to first principles, get inspiration from the internot. And remember that we are responsible for the data we produce and how it’s used. This stuff does matter.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Image Boost July 2006


Back in October, I regurgitated this Extrawurst, written originally in October 2005. It was all about Du bist Deutschland, a noble idea but rather worthy in the campaign execution. The idea was to give Germans and Germany a kick of positive self-confidence about the country’s place in the world. And I commented that the following year, the job was done by hosting the World Cup. 

This month, I’ve dug out the piece I wrote 9 months later, in July 2006. The World Cup had just wrapped up. As I put it then (rather pompously) “... the repositioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al.”

I don’t think the media had got completely obsessed with the word Sommermärchen at that point, but you can sense the euphoria in my writing. Rattling on about inclusiveness and a “new Germany” - warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient.


Well, it is over a week now since Germany crashed out of the World Cup to Italy. Since then, we have had the “little final” against Portugal where Klinsmann’s boys trotted out their stuff once more to the joy of the crowd, the real final in all its head-butting drama and even a “little victory parade” in Berlin the morning after the “little final”. Klinsmann has announced he’s standing down, but no-one here seems to begrudge him his decision and his life. The sun is still shining, the cars and houses are still sporting their flags and everyone, but everyone, is still talking about how fantastic it all was.


Turn the clock back three years and it was all a different story. The German Embassy in London, together with the Goethe Institute held a conference on improving the image of Germany in the UK. Numerous marketing experts were invited to discuss how Germany could overcome the dire perception the country has abroad, especially in the UK. I don’t know the outcome of the conference, but I think we can assume it was all talk and no Lederhosen.


Similarly, I wrote at length about the internal campaign here which ran at the end of 2005 to try and re-kindle some sort of national pride in a negative, depressed, Angst-ridden people, haunted by a past that most of them were not responsible for. If you want to have a look, check out Extrawurst October 2005. Although I claim no abilities as a clairvoyant, I did suggest that perhaps actions speak louder than words and that maybe one thing that would get Germany back on its feet would be winning the World Cup on home soil.


Well, what do you know? They may not have won the cup, but they all have nice little bronze medals to be very proud of (has anyone noticed that bronze is what happens if you mix the colours of the German flag together?) and Germany is still in a state of euphoria. Somehow, we could have saved the money from Bertelsmann & Co as Klinsmann and his merry men seem to have achieved a miracle. Just as the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, so the re-positioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al. Who would have thought it?


Internally, it seems that the German Angst has packed up its bags and left (with Sweden, or, more likely, Argentina) and people are actually smiling and talking to each other. No-one is ashamed of the black, red and gold flag anymore and people are talking with enthusiasm about how wonderful the whole event was, how splendidly the team played and generally how much fun it was to have so many visitors from around the world. No-one is even that bitter or twisted about Italy winning: the Germans believe they are winners, too.


The German embassy could have spared their conference, too as well as the German Tourist Board’s rather limp efforts in the Tube with Geoff Hurst as celebrity endorsement for what a super place Germany is (it is, really!). Externally, people and papers around the world have been deluged with images of a new Germany: warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient. Those that actually experienced it all first-hand seem to be unanimous in their praise and the effect seems to have been particularly marked with the English fans and the British media. So much so that, by the end of the tournament, any England fan who tried to provoke by singing “Ten German bombers” or similar would have felt a complete yesterday’s plonker.


I am sure there are many, many lessons that we in branding and marketing can learn from Germany’s self-generated re-positioning. I’ll just go through one or two that seem to occur to me immediately.


First and foremost, as I hinted in October last year, it’s all about actions and doing rather than saying and telling. How a brand behaves, what it does and how a person experiences it directly is far, far more important than what the brand tells you about itself, which you may or may not believe - if you’re even bothering to listen.


Within a brand, you do have to be careful about choosing which of those facets of the brand to put on the public stage and I am more and more convinced that how to choose these is more a case of gut feel and experience than any amount of analysis or research. Let’s look at the managers of the German team 2002 and 2006, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann. Although of roughly the same footballing generation, the two characters couldn’t be more different. Völler was a fine footballer but his appeal was mainly to German males. Unfortunately, his perm, moustache and very German old-school approach sent out the wrong signals to the world at large. Klinsmann, on the other hand, is known to have a more world-open approach and his lack of macho and aggression gave him appeal to the world at large with his earlier diving antics forgiven and forgotten! Or take two players at random – Oliver Kahn, the star of Völler’s squad who spent all but one game of the 2006 tournament on the bench, is an aggressive, snarling macho titan who threw a hissy fit when he wasn’t picked as number one goalie. Contrast him with Klinsmann’s favourite sub, David Odonkor, an agile, creative, African German whose sheer delight in running up and down that pitch couldn’t have been clearer.


Only plan so far: plan what can be planned. It is important for all the hygiene factors to be in place, but you have to leave room for luck, spontaneity and, importantly, people’s participation. People have to choose themselves whether they join in, and the brand has to grow of its own accord. We can only plant the seeds and guide the plant in the right direction. I heard that there were already plans for England’s victory celebrations in place before the kick-off of the first game. Mistake.


While we’re on the plant analogy, we can do a lot to provide the right conditions for a brand to grow and flourish. In Germany’s case the arrangements made for the fan fests, travel and policing were superb. And I didn’t hear any stories about the beer running out at crucial moments! Of course, there are other environmental factors that we can’t do much about, such as the weather.


One of the reasons for the success or turnaround of the brand Germany via hosting the World Cup was its inclusiveness. The motto about friends and guests really was lived-out: everyone felt welcome. There was never a feeling about football being an exclusively male domain or something just for those-in-the-know. Everyone really was invited, and it was extraordinary to see how many German women, including Frau Merkel, got caught up into the spirit of the whole thing.


An optimistic attitude carries a brand a long way. Before the WM, it was all doom and gloom here about Germany generally (the ageing population, the pension reform, the tax increases), the WM (hooligans, terrorist attacks) and Klinsmann and his team (hopeless) but Jürgen and the football fans carried on regardless, giving the critics and doom-mongers a sympathetic smile on the way.


Finally, I think you have to judge when enough is enough. From a P.R point of view, making it to 3rd place couldn’t have been bettered. I think that, if Germany had made it to the final, particularly through yet another “clinical” display of penalties, the new-found warmth for the country may have started cooling down as the old clichés about Teutonic invincibility crept back in.


And Klinsmann, too, has timed his exit well. He has saved the football team and the country. What is there left here for him to do?


Well, in 2024, Klinsmann has deserted his homeland for California. But Rüdi and Olli are still doing the football dinosaur stomp around press and pitches. English fans are still being warned to go easy on “10 German Bombers”.

The tournament so far has been rather plagued by crappy trains, bad weather, tales of beer running out and rumblings about right wing extremism around Europe.

Germany has had bad luck in the draw. I’m wondering how much longer they’ll be in. And how long England’s good luck will last.

Reading about Summer 2006 has made me feel nostalgic for a pre-social media age. The focus was on the big screens back then. 

But ... it’s not over until the final whistle in a couple of weeks. 

9 games is plenty of time to make history.