For anyone using Gmail (and that means a lot of us these days), mutated “personalised” ads are something of a constant which often you just can’t help but notice. Considering how easy it usually is to visually filter out website ads or turn them off altogether with plugins like AdBlock, getting us to linger over them at all is in itself something of an achievement. Sure, most of us have figured out how to access the “Ad Preferences Manager” and “opt out” of these sort of ads…but this is to some extent misleading. Despite confirming that I have opted out, Gmail still happily states that many of the ads I see are “based on the email that you are viewing.”
I assume they mean “based on” in the same way that Django Unchained is “based on” historical events, because many bizarrely off-kilter ads rear up daily to distract me from the important and time-critical business of
procrastination email correspondence. Is this really what they have in mind when they talk about Advertainment?
Many attempts are clearly generic “catch alls” – cheap holidays, bank loans, ancestry searches etc. Many others reveal the problem with using only a simple keyword extraction approach to determining from my mails what might interest me. If I am already undertaking a PhD at a University – something made clear from my email signature – then how likely am I really to want to start another one in Cardiff, Leeds or exotic Manchester? Others are less explicable – Learn Acting in Australia! Hawaii Beach Weddings! Plus Size Swimwear. Really? Believe it or not, these do not relate to my Google searches either. I can only assume this is where their demographic profiling shows off its flawless powers of deduction.
Never until today had an ad that might actually, truly be relevant presented itself. Best of all, it was wonderfully, knowingly ironic and self-referential. This – yes, I clicked the hyperlinked ad words! Deliberately! – was where I landed:
It pains me to admit that I am actually now thinking of buying this book. Did they finally find a way to trap me? I, so immune from the sinister world of both mass and personalised marketing? Doubtless, Google and Amazon are already working together to track whether or not I make the purchase. The hoped for path from my inbox to my letterbox, once complete, will light up their control panel in waves of ecstatic green. Ticker tape will fall from the sky. And they will add me, quietly, to their tally of “converts”. Borrowed from the now-defunct Christians, convert (in
new marketing speak) means “when someone clicks on your ad and performs a behavior on your website that you recognize as valuable, such as calling your business from a mobile phone or making a purchase on your website.” Surely Zygmunt Bauman would be proud of me for NOT buying the book? His bank manager, possibly less so.
For those of us who don’t often have cause to go into a children’s toyshop, said establishments can become unexpectedly fascinating sites for anthropological research. On a recent trip to Carlisle, I decided to see what I could find in their Early Learning Centre for my two adorable nieces. Considering I was an “early learner” myself when I last visited, I was understandably amazed at how things have changed since then. The ELC do make a concerted effort to offer a range of toys categorised according to area and skill development – problem solving, gross motor skills, hand-to-eye-coordination, thinking skills, learning to read and so on. I’m not sure about the amount of research that has gone into them, but no doubt these guides are appreciated by regular customers. At the same time, toyshops are just that: shops. Profit, not education, is the ultimate bottom line, and that means keeping up-to-date and “on trend”.
As an adult, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of toys that continue to promote the usual stereotypical gender roles. Although both girls and boys are pictured playing with kitchen sets and tractors, the meta tags for ELCs online Xmas Shop still refer insistently to “top toys for girls” (pink phantasia, styling heads and prams) and “top toys for boys” (greens, browns, yellows, construction kits and cowboy costumes) in terms carefully avoided elsewhere on the site. The arguments that follow from such assumptions are well known and I won’t repeat them all here. Equally interesting is how a new range of toys reflect the technological changes of our own “adult” environments. Hearteningly, the same little girls who are expected to content themselves with fake washing machines, vacuum cleaners and fairytale castles are at least expected to leave the domestic sphere at some point and undertake the kind of labour that requires a multitude of tech gadgets. 😉 To illustrate:
A lightweight multi-purpose laptop with a “32 page workbook”. For 3-6 year olds? Wow. Is fun time over? Or are the links between creativity, consumption and productivity what is being encoded here as fun? A scale of consumer gradation means that eventually the toys start subtly to assume actual functionality; whether that be for work or entertainment. Try an image search for “Pink laptop” and you’ll probably struggle to differentiate the fakes from the real things. As Bind Apple noted a few years ago:
Since manufacturers decided they should improve the design and the colors of their existing products, the IT market has been flooded by the massive demand of pink products. Why pink? Because, unlike 10 years ago, technology is not for men only. Also, because the feminine target now represents more than 45% of the total consumers of the whole gadget market.
Of course, it all eventually comes full circle when the adult “gadgets” get marketed as though they were toys. The message seems to be that while children need to mimic their parents, their parents really ought to regress back to the colourful non-results-focused world of play. But isn’t that world becoming just a miniature version of what they’re doing anyway? In future, maybe we’ll have a separate queue for children at airport baggage screening areas. At the ELC, they could buy a multi-coloured, personalised tray to deposit their fake laptops, smartphones and tractor keys into. Just to make sure they really understand the implications of all of this sparkly social technology.
More seriously, there are of course clear links between play, games, learning, creativity and skills development, regardless of age group. Most people would agree that play shouldn’t stop the minute we get added to the electoral register. It’s a question though of what kind of play should be encouraged, and of what gets conditioned into us by the lessons embedded in the socio-cultural tools of the toyshop. Where do the chunky, bright buttons of the laptop and the smartphone fit within paradigms of “investigative” or “collaborative” learning? With the development of critical faculties and personality and “problematic” gender identity? Following the logic of the manufacturers, children will arrive at school already primed to be a certain type of consumer. If I were a parent, I might start to worry about the cost of the inevitable upgrades. That said, can I admit that I did find a lot of the toys pretty nifty?