The cold intimacy that comes when the TV calls your name

This pretence of being friendly and of knowing us is a well-worn tool of capitalism – as noises crowd our lives, it becomes harder to find peace.

David Beer
2 June 2017

Siri knows your name. Rami Mohsen/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Yesterday, whilst using an on-demand service to catch up with one of the recent political debates, I was caught off guard by a ‘personalised’ TV advert. This was not something I’d seen before. The advert for Ronseal Fence Life began by saying my name. As far as I could tell it was only personalised insofar as it opened by addressing me directly, it wasn’t, for instance, personalised enough to know that I don’t own a fence.

It turns out that Channel 4, the channel I was watching at the time, introduced what it calls “the world’s first audio personalised TV ads” on the 25th of April this year. Developed by the media company Innovid, the three partners for this launch were Fosters, 20th Century Fox and Ronseal. Quoted in the press release, James Smith, Ronseal’s Marketing Director, suggested that “this new technology provides us with the ideal platform to get personal so we can motivate people to finally get on with their DIY”.

A bit of motivation is always welcome. It would seem though that the change in the adverts is more directly connected to the possibilities for capturing our attention. David Amodio, Channel 4’s ‘Digital and Creative Leader’, indicated in the same press statement that “the most attention grabbing word for anyone to hear is without doubt one’s own name, so to be able to offer advertisers the chance to speak directly to our millions of viewers is not just unique, but an immensely powerful marketing tool”.

It seems that calling out someone’s name is seen to represent an opportunity to monopolise attention. It’s almost as if someone in advertising has got hold of Louis Althusser’s 1969 essay ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’. In that essay Althusser uses the metaphor of being hailed in the street to explain his concept of interpellation. When shouted we can’t help but look, he points out, in that moment we are exposed to culture and its embedded ideologies. These ideologies call to us all the time. Althusser was pointing to what he saw as the inescapability of being subsumed into ideologies, whether we choose to resist or not. There is a kind of gravitational pull to being hailed.

In the case of these personalised TV adverts we have a kind of consumerist hailing going on. It seems that the aim of using the viewer’s name, drawn from their account details, is to try to make it impossible for you not to look. This change is presented, with the adverts opening ‘personalised advert’ message, as being about shaping content to the needs of the user. It’s obvious though that this is not really about personalisation, it’s about hailing. It’s about shouting to us to catch our attention.

Technology has put itself on first name terms with us.

As Althusser pointed out, when shouted it is hard not to look. Saying your name is a more powerful way of grabbing your attention than simply including it as text. The problem is that this now adds to the cacophony of hailing that comes at us, incessantly. They’ve just discovered that sonic hailing is a way to be heard over the rest of the calls for our attention. Sound cuts through, plus our name is an attention-grabbing audio signal.

The problem is the feeling that this personalisation produces. It got my attention but it felt like a stranger saying my name at me, producing a feeling of uneasiness rather than providing any warm sense of a knowing dialogue. These personalised TV adverts have the desperation of Alan Partridge, in a car park, repeatedly shouting ‘Dan’ to try to get the attention of what he hopes is his new best friend.

This type of faux intimacy is quite common. These can be placed within the broader ‘cold intimacies’ of capitalism described by Eva Illouz – hollow gestures that suggest a caring presence. This pretence of being friendly and of knowing us is a well-worn tool of capitalism. Birthday and Christmas cards and messages from bands and corporations, recommendations and suggestions sent to us with personalised messages and a familiar tone. There are lots of ways that, as Will Davies has described, “technology has put itself on first name terms” with us.

Sound is not only now at the forefront of surveillance, with questions about how microphones embedded in phones and voice-activated consumables generate sonic data; it is also being used within the attention economy. Listening without speaking in the former case and speaking without listening in the latter. There is a kind of inescapability to being hailed by your name.

The tailoring of the soundscape is not to cater to our needs it is to call our attention, to hail us in a way that can’t easily be ignored or that cuts through the information bombarding us. In the pursuit of attention, which is a rare commodity within the context of what the media theorist Mark Andrejevic has called the ‘infoglut’, sound is being used to create new opportunities to limit our spaces of escape and to channel our focus towards desired objects. This adds a sonic dimension to this ‘infoglut’.

The danger is that our soundscapes become as cluttered with attempts to grab our attention as our visual lines of sight already are. This will give us even less space or peace in which to escape, think and reflect. Imagine what it will be like if our media suddenly start constantly saying our name to us, hailing us in lots of directions, constantly calling for our attention.

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