There’s too much focus on our individual selves and our differences, and not what we hold in common or what joins us together.
— Ryan Holiday

Dear T--,

I got your text saying, "I'd love to see someone write something about the bullshit that is personalization. How it makes everything surgical, small, etc"

By "someone" you may not mean me, but what the hell, I agree with you, so I figured I'd shoot you a quick note.

Yeah, there's way too much focus in marketing on trying to target the individual. Beyond not actually working for bigger branding, it isn't the direction we should go creatively. Where else but the ad world would anyone try to make something so specific that it speaks to the smallest group possible in the least interesting way?

TV? Movies? Music? Nope. I don't know any artists (even esoteric or self-involved ones) who want to make a show, film or song for one person. Not unless it's Wu Tang with that album that Shkreli bought. Man, was that a shitshow.

Why has trying to "talk directly to one single consumer!" become the holy grail? I'm not sure. The more interesting thing to me is that people are actually a lot alike and not that special. So we should be trying find insightful ideas that speak broadly and bring us together to show how we're connected.

Which sure as hell isn't a new idea. It's called Sympatheia, a Stoic theory a couple of millennia old that suggests “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other." That's what we should be aiming for. By asking things like:

Why are we adamant about making people seem unique?

Why do we want people to feel alone instead of helping them appreciate what they share?

Why don't we explore and celebrate what unites us rather than what separates us?


Because it's faster to think small instead of acting big. Because it's easier to allow people to be self-interested rather than asking them to be sympathetic. And because we've always tried to make people feel falsely special instead of honestly ordinary.

That's the basis of advertising, right? From Pepsodent in 1915 to whatever's being hawked to make teeth shine now (for people way smarter on this, check out Tim Wu's Attention Merchantsand Derek Thompson interviewing him here.)

The question is, can we change how micro everything has gotten? Or are we too late?

I'm afraid we're so deep in the weeds that we're going to strangle ourselves trying to climb out. We've pushed customization in everything from mobile phones to musical taste to the point of delusion –– we think we're special because we pick one tiny thing on our own while copying everything else.

I know I'm to blame.

I have the exact same phone as millions of other people, but I'm convinced it's unique. I have specific apps, laid out and grouped the way I want. And I can get this case, which I could customize, only I don't want to cover up the pure beauty of the design. So what if I scratched the crap out of it the first week I got it? It's more than a year old and I can always get this newish one; the camera has way better bokeh so it's pretty different.

Or how about my new car? I got the Advance Package like a lot of other people, but it's the hybrid, which is harder to find. And I might buy a Yeti to put in the back for the beach, but not the big one that's for hunters or whoever. The Haul. It has wheels, so it's great for my son's all-day tournaments all over the Northeast this summer. That's what I need.

Speaking of long drives, I just spent an hour rating songs to get a curated playlist (there's an experimental feature under Settings). It's more than two days of nonstop music –- 795 tracks –– most of which I already knew I liked because I rated them "love," and a ton of others by bands I never heard of and hate, but I'll just spend a couple of hours deleting them and it'll be perfect. The app named it "You've got great taste!", which I know is what they call every playlist they make, but I went in and deleted the "you've" and the "got" and took out the exclamation mark (this Buzzfeed quiz told me that zero “befit my personality”) so now it's all me.

Yes, it's all ridiculous.

But the problem is we accepted, got used to, and then expected all this false personalization. So marketers offered us more. And more. And more. And now... here we are.

But, hey, it's okay. I'm not really like everyone else when I use my iPhone to listen to Spotify in my MDX. I'm different, right? Unique. Especially if I grow out my beard and get that tattoo I'm thinking about. Plus I have great taste. Trust me, I'm listening to it right now.


Nick ChildsComment