Big Brother buys our loyalty

Shopping smart cards are being used to gather information on our personal lives. Do we care?
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The Independent Online
My life has changed. I am known as never before. My movements and habits are tracked, implicated, counted. Electronically, I am watched by British Airways, BT, Shell, the National Westminster Bank, even, weirdly, by John Menzies.

These companies have bought my acquiescence in this surveillance by offering me the magic of Air Miles. Soothingly, respectfully they say: look, you buy petrol, make phone calls or use credit cards anyway, so why not use ours? It's a painless, cost-free decision and, to reward you for making it, we will give you free air travel, the supreme luxury of the modern world.

How could I resist? Anything other than Shell petrol is now unthinkable and my Visa and American Express cards languish unused in my wallet. For the moment I can think of nothing I wish to buy at John Menzies, but I will.

This is all, of course, made possible by information technology. I do almost nothing new, yet quantum physics and silicon chips ensure that the things I habitually do are automatically logged and rewarded. We note this newly discovered phenomenon of your loyalty, say the companies, and, electronically, we embrace you, we love you.

And loyalty is what they call it, even though I have, in reality, been bribed and feel no moral or emotional commitment to Shell as opposed to BP, NatWest as opposed to Amex. I'm just in it for the Miles. But the companies don't mind; loyalty to them means only mindless repetition, they require no movement of my soul, no careful consumer assessment of their goods.

Loyalty marketing - sometimes called, even more intimately, "relationship marketing" - is the Big New Thing in corporate thinking. It has begun to infect almost every transaction down to the most fleeting. Buy a coffee these days and the cafe will probably offer you 10p off the next latte or cappuccino, just to make you, in commercial terms, "loyal".

But the real loyalty action is happening in the big corporate computer databases. These have given companies the power not just to know people, in general, but people in particular. Take up Tesco's loyalty card and somebody at head office will know exactly what you buy; idly allow yourself to be hooked into Heinz's system and you will receive a magazine specifically edited to respond to your personal buying patterns.

The first effect of this new power is to expose the appalling inefficiency of traditional advertising. However big a brand - Coca-Cola, Guinness, Heinz Baked Beans, whatever - the reality is that it is actually bought by only a small minority of the total population. Yet the usual advertising approach is to shout at, cajole or wheedle everybody. Inevitably, any such ad will be wasted on the overwhelming majority of its audience. But relationship marketing is a magic bullet that targets only those who are genuinely likely to buy or have already bought.

It is also a way of getting round one awkward fact of modern life: most of the stuff we buy is so utterly banal and undifferentiated that ordinary advertising has lost its persuasive power. This even applies to something as apparently exciting as a car. Consider the two TV campaigns now running for the Peugeot 406 and the Vauxhall Vectra. The first suggests that the 406 will help you to "search for the hero inside yourself" and the second implies that the Vectra is a futuristic, sci-fi vehicle miraculously available now. Yet both are utterly dull mid-range saloons, indistinguishable from the competition. The rhetoric of these fabulously outdated, hugely incompetent ads looks absurd. We care for neither car since we know the claims to be meaningless.

Clearly, traditional advertising will continue. The Peugeot and Vauxhall ads may make dealers feel good and may provide some rather tenuous reinforcement for people who have bought one of these bland runabouts.

But on the whole, it will have to change. The big traditional branding successes of recent years - Nike, Orange, Tango, Microsoft - have been based on a deliberate avoidance of such crudity. Instead, they appeal to the young and zany (Tango), the seeker after authenticity (Nike), the globalised loner (Orange) or the technologically anxious (Microsoft). These are personalities that appear true because they are so contemporary, they refer to the Nineties sense of being part of yet also alienated from the economic system.

But relationship marketing will be where the real selling happens in the future. For not only does it work but, strangely, we love it. This is strange because, in fact, its connotations are rather sinister. It depends, above all, on our willingness to allow ourselves to be watched, to let the details of our lives be logged on computers far beyond our control. Twenty years ago we would have recoiled in horror at the idea; it would have seemed such an assault on our freedom and privacy. Yet now it seems obvious, routine, clearly desirable.

This movement towards acceptance of the wired culture is a general phenomenon. Once the idea of surveillance cameras on street corners would have seemed an outrage. Now it is accepted as a commonsense measure against crime and terrorism. The technological culture, in which our lives are examined, cross-referenced and used by agencies and in ways of which we know nothing, is not, it seems, a nightmare but a welcome convenience.

This has happened, I think, because we have all become technological determinists. All this is going to happen whatever we say or do, so resistance is pointless. The qualms of 1984 or Brave New World seem like the remote, futile anxieties of another culture. The electronic system, the Net with its fabulous appetite for personal detail, is here whether we like it or not. What choice do we have but to accept its presence, to co-operate with its exotic system of goads and rewards?

At a deeper level, I think we also find all this consoling. The systems that lock us into these networks of companies, even the system that watches our movements on the street, feel friendly. When I buy my Shell and collect my Miles, somebody or something recognises me. Mad as it may seem, I accept the mercenary flattery. We all do because for that moment it feel better than the usual blank impersonality of the wired world.

But then the Orwellian conscience kicks in. Where is all this information going? What awful correlations is it generating? And do I care enough to stop collecting Air Miles?