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The DeanBeat: A Westworld ‘activation’ that illustrates the creepy side of tech

My colleagues have been wondering what the word “activation” means, as the Entertainment Software Association used the word in describing why its Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was still going to be good even after Sony decided to skip it for two years in a row. People say it’s a meaningless buzzword, but brands do activations in advertising to get fans more engaged and aware about something. For techies, esports fans, and gamers, these activations have to be authentic, or they will react poorly. And experiential marketing is one of the keys to activating a brand in the right way. These are ads and campaigns that deliver a real experience.

When I attended CES 2020, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas last week, I experienced an activation like no other. I was one of a number of journalists (like my friend, Martine Paris, who also wrote about the dinner) who attended the HBO Westworld Experience at CES, a dinner in a luxurious library at the NoMad Hotel. It was a kind of play with real actors mixed in among the dinner guests, trying to make a point about tech and society, as well as promoting Season 3 of Westworld debuting on HBO on March 15.

It started with an unusual RSVP form. They pegged me for a Westworld fan, knowing that I’ve written about it and its themes of the ethics of artificial intelligence and how we should treat virtual human beings. So they had me at the subject line. But then they started asking a lot of personal questions. The questionnaire came from a fictional company called Incite, which evidently is a kind of Cambridge Analytica-type firm that will figure into Season 3. They wanted to know my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.

Above: The HBO Westworld invitation for the Incite dinner at CES.

I filled it out even when Incite asked me to sign a “Waiver Forever. It was the price of admission. When I arrived, they checked me in. But I believe they mistook me for another guest with the same last name. So I went back to them and noted that my name wasn’t on the table, as it was with the other guests.

So then the PR folks started freaking out a bit, and they asked me to wait. They were worried I would not get the “full experience” that everyone else was going to get. But eventually, they seated me at a table that had an opening, and I was the only guest without a nametag. I saw plenty of familiar faces among the journalists, and then someone came out onstage.

She was an actress, going by the name Barbara Quinlan, Incite’s development co-chair. She buttered us up by saying we were “exciting guests” with the right minds and the right outlook that would “get it.” She gave us the pitch on Incite, which believes “underneath all of this noise and turbulence, there’s a pattern.”

She added, “At Incite, we believe that chaos is just a pattern waiting to be discovered.” She said Incite can lead each of us to a better life, a better you. “It’s about you, about your choices, about empowering every one of you to live your best life,” she said.

She asked us to take our seats. I sat down with some other journalists that I hadn’t met, as well as a fellow from Giant Spoon, an experiential marketing agency that worked with HBO on the activation. We noted that everyone had a different menu, except for me, and they had already been assigned what the restaurant believed were their favorite foods. This was more than “steak, chicken, or fish.”

And another actress from Incite came to our table and started chatting with us. And she began bringing up personal things about each person at the table, casually dropping them in a way that made a person raise their eyebrows. “How can she know that?” Of course, we had signed up for this by oversharing on social media and signing to that open-ended waiver.

She noted that we had 70 fingers at the table, but not the same number of toes. (We didn’t grasp that one). It became a kind of game at the table to fess up and say who she was talking about. While I thought I would be left out, the hostess said, “Someone has been binging on The Witcher,” the Netflix show. And that was a direct reference to something I had said days earlier on my Facebook page. She also nailed me when she said that I was writing about technology for the elderly and how my mother was. I had written earlier on social media that my mother had slipped and broken her wrist.

At one point, we were wondering how she was digging out the info. Some people shared on Twitter. Some had on Facebook, but some of those people had locked down their Facebook accounts. We wondered if we were being recorded at the table. I wondered if our friend from Giant Spoon was really a spy. When she returned, the hostess dished out on him, referencing his upcoming wedding. He smiled. Another noted how they had been served the wine that they had at their wedding.

Then the hostess Quinlan took to the stage again and talked about how Incite was focused on the choices we make. Large and small. The ones that define our lives. She noted how they ordered dinner for us, and asked if it was “surprising how nice it was to give up that little freedom.” She then walked through the life choices of an alleged audience member, taking us through her choices for college, work, a city to live in, and how that led to her meeting the love of her life and getting married. Quinlan then took the added step of noting how Incite believed the person’s life could have turned out differently had she made different choices.

All that was stressful, Quinlan said. She said 67% of people confessed to having stress about big decisions. So Incite’s big pitch is to make our big life’s decisions for us. Yes, that sounds ridiculous. But it is a logical conclusion of the direction that we are going. We post things on social media to see what the hive mind things about our big decisions. Why not entrust this decision to the greatest hive mind of all, Incite’s data centers?

It all felt to me like we were inside a video game. But yes, it was an activation. Though fictional, it was a way for the show creators to insert themselves into the conversation, showing how ridiculous our behavior about over-sharing had become by showing us an extreme example of where this was all going.

All of that drove the point home that we had been way too loose with our data and put our personal privacy at risk. It was a message about social media, tech companies, and a lot of companies at CES who mean well and are trying to help us but are really all about collecting our private data and making money from it.

HBO VP of program marketing Steven Cardwell said in an interview with me that the activation was aimed at celebrating Season 3. He said the actors had to memorize more than 600 pages of a script for the dinner, in addition to improvising in my case.

“We saw see this is a great opportunity to bring Incite as if they were a [real] company, like many on the ground at CES, promising their version of the future,” Cardwell said. “And in this case, Incite was debuting their strategy engine which essentially eliminated the necessity of choice because based on the data that’s already available on you. They can predict what the right decisions are. So you know that the dinner was a way to bring thought leaders and trust, to the dialogue that that’s been really prominent at CES.”

We do have the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), a law that went into effect on January 1. It protects state residents from misuse of their personal data. We do care more about privacy than we did two years ago when Cambridge Analytic attempted to disrupt the 2016 elections. And at least many of us are aware of the consequences of losing our privacy. But while we care about that, we still go ahead and do things like participating in the Westworld dinner because we trust that the company won’t do anything bad with our data.

I couldn’t think of a better way to get us all passionate and engaged with this issue, other than this kind of activation. It’s almost that this kind of interactive play, or a video game, or a television show — an activation — is really what it takes to stir our passions.

“Some of the questions that are going to be covered in the upcoming season. I don’t think we are here to provide any answers or point of view, but merely here to kind of start the conversation,” Cardwell did.

As for the activation, Cardwell said, “Westworld is always been a show of immersive entertainment. These are people going to a park to live out their wildest fantasies and experiential marketing and an immersive theater just felt like a very natural way to bring people into the show.”

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