Miyazaki’s warmth against the icy cold of data-driven marketing

Human being is (at least for some time yet) more than the data that describe him by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian by La Repubblica – Italian Tech

The success of 君たちはどう生きるか, Hayao Miyazaki’s new film, the title of which has been badly repurposed into ‘The Boy and the Heron’, reminds us of an idea that is as important as it is doomed to be overlooked: there is (still) an alternative to marketing based on the creation of information clones built through the indiscriminate accumulation of data to offer ‘highly personalised services’ but in reality glacially dehumanised.

The film, which took years to see the light, was not trumpeted – pardon – publicised like so many other mass goods – pardon – theatrical products with a big screen and a snack cart passing between the first and second half. The Japanese release, in fact, was not preceded by an official launch, press conferences and television appearances, which were replaced, instead, by the publication of a simple poster. This was enough to attract the public and turn “How will you guys live?” – this is the approximate correct translation of the title – into an international success.

The fact that such a choice was the result of a pragmatical assessment that ‘simply’ planned the most efficient strategy in relation to the product’s characteristics (and on the more than likely use of market analyses conducted at the planning stage) does not change the core of the matter. The audience did not need to be governed like a flock of sheep and routed through the theatres by algorithms and statistics, but ‘simply’ reacted to a work of art conveying a message. In other words, instead of trying to sell anything by artificially creating the need – this is the hallmark of ‘digital marketing’ – the film was offered as if it were a gift and not imposed.

From this point of view, the discourse is entirely analogous to what happens in other (not only) artistic spheres: there is a substantial difference between those who reach the audience by establishing an empathic connection and those who, instead, do so as an inanimate product built in series on the basis of data generated by some platform. This applies to artists, but also to objects and services.

Of course, if the goal is to ‘sell at all costs’ all this talk is meaningless. Who cares if this or that artist is good or not? Or whether that object is actually useful or is (destined to become) just a cumbersome piece of junk? Nothing, because what matters is that ‘consumers’ buy what is put on the shelf, regardless of whether they need it physically or intellectually. Hence the proliferation of data-driven behavioural manipulation techniques, from the Ocean Model to nudging, which, apart from the communicative embellishment that characterises them, certainly do not serve to establish a sincere relationship with people.

This does not mean that data-driven marketing is useless, ineffective or to be abandoned but that it could (or should?) be used to satisfy concrete needs and not to artificially create fictitious needs.

The fideistic recourse to ‘analytics’ generates, in fact, a well-known paradoxical effect: by dint of modelling products and services on ‘what people want’, interest in creating something really new and useful is reduced, favouring the ‘me-too’ or, on the contrary, ‘difference’ for its own sake. Paraphrasing Andrew Lang, one could, therefore, say that many people use data – he was talking about statistics – like a drunkard uses lampposts: more as a support than to light the way.

I am not entirely sure that there was such reasoning behind the marketing and communication choices made for ‘The Boy and the Heron’. However, phenomenally, what happened with this film offers more than a cue to reflect on the importance of regaining control of one’s own existence, eschewing the hypocritical paternalism of (not only) commercial marketing strategies, which, under the guise of ‘doing something for us’, reduce us to a worse condition than the human beings in the world of The Matrix.

In the film, individuals are kept alive insofar as (and as long as) they are producers of energy to power machines which translates, in real life, into existing insofar as (and as long as) one is able to generate wealth to spend. However, while The Matrix is just a movie, the condition of the ‘consumer’ is damn real, and digital marketing is the tool to make sure people get used to accepting this dehumanisation of existence.

Therefore, it matters little what the real reason was behind the choice of how to present ‘The Boy and the Heron’ to the world, because what matters is the food for thought it offers: to choose to continue living in a condition of systemic daze in which everything is consumption, or to take back control of one’s life, because the human being is (at least for some time yet) more than the data that describe him.

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