Recent patents by Meta (the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) give insight into how the company plans to monetise its future version of the metaverse, a new platform slated to be part of the next evolution of the internet, according to insights from the Financial Times.
For instance, people will be invited to visit virtual stores through virtual and augmented reality, and users will (perhaps unsurprisingly) be targeted with personal advertisements based on their interaction with the environment and technology of the Facebook metaverse.
Meta plans to keep the entry price low for the required technology (headset), in order to build a large user base, so revenue from its metaverse will primarily be coming in from selling digital goods and targeted advertisements.
This may sound rather innocuous. Targeted advertisement based on individual interests, likes, and comments have been around for a long time, and most users of social media have seemingly come to accept it as a normal part of their (digital) life.
The technology driving the metaverses, however, will notably open up new avenues for targeted advertisement that is not only much more individually tailored in terms of interests, but also in terms of our individual psychology and unconscious neural mechanisms.
The metaverses open up for new types of advertisements that do not merely aim to inform but also to influence and drive consumer choices in new ways.
For instance, the gaze of our eyes and the activity of our pupils contain implicit information about our interests and emotional states. The tone of our voice can similarly be used to infer information about emotional states, such as depressive states, which can be used to target and manipulate consumer choices in various ways.
In effect, this opens up for new types of advertisements that do not merely aim to inform but also to influence and drive consumer choices in new ways.
Using unconscious biological reactions and neural mechanisms to influence consumers in this way, however, appears to violate personal autonomy, as this form of marketing aims to bypass, undermine, or subvert rational decision-making.
In some ways, this mirrors previous objections to subliminal advertisements and their perceived potential to severely manipulate consumer choices by taking advantage of unconscious cognitive processes.
It is difficult to say where to draw the line though.
After all, unconscious biological reactions and neural mechanisms are routinely used to influence consumers in various ways that do not appear to be morally wrongful. For instance, music is used to put consumers in a relaxed state, pricing is used to influence consumer choices, and strategic placement of goods in supermarkets is utilized to take advantage of will power fatigue.
The power of combining knowledge about individual interests, psychology, emotional states, unconscious cognitive processes, and neural mechanisms, however, may render the advertisement of the future closer to subliminal advertisement than to mall muzak.
This at least in part depends on how powerful these technologies will turn out to be in terms of manipulating consumer behavior. The potential is seemingly huge though as large amounts of biological data can potentially be collected, feedback can be gathered in real time, and adjustments can be made on the fly.
In any event, it is imperative that people are informed about how biological data can be leveraged to influence and drive behavior, especially through targeted advertisements. It is difficult to resist such influences without being aware of their potential effects.
Moreover, safeguards should be provided against companies taking advantage of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. For instance, by severely limiting targeted advertisements to people in depressed states.
This also includes so-called psychometric targeting, clearly intended to take advantage of people in vulnerable states such as people who live long away from family, are recently divorced, unemployed, or currently in grief.
This will not only protect personal autonomy, but also ensure that the burden of advertisements in the Metaverse do not fall disproportionately on some, while the benefits are primarily reaped by others.