I was disappointed but not wholly surprised that you didn’t find Wednesday's post with Personalized Mona Lisa as self-evidently hilarious as I did. This isn’t the first time my sense of humor failed to match with yours. And, while I know that explaining something never convinces anyone that it’s really funny, I think Personalized Mona Lisa has enough serious content to justify further discussion. So here goes.
Let’s start at the beginning. The idea of Personalized Mona Lisa is that someone decided to offer “personalized” versions of Mona Lisa by presenting each individual with a portion of the painting that was related to their interests. So a geologist was shown the rock formations, a hairdresser saw Mona's curls, an ophthalmologist saw her eye, and so on. The joke was it’s obvious that Mona Lisa must be seen as a whole to be appreciated, so whoever tried to improve it by showing only pieces was foolishly mistaken. We laugh at their mindless over-use of personalization, and, perhaps a bit, with relief that we weren’t the ones to make that mistake.
Ok, maybe it’s not all that funny.
But the notion of over-extending personalization is still important. By showing that there’s at least one situation where personalization is bad, Personalized Mona Lisa (PML) proves personalization isn't always the right thing to do. This means we need to think about when to use personalization and how to make those choices. Given that most marketing discussions today treat more personalization as the unquestioned goal, this is a conversation worth having.
So what are the problems with personalization? PML actually illustrates them quite nicely if you take a close look. We can view it from three perspectives: the consumer, the company, and society as a whole.
- From the consumer perspective, personalization reduces choice by determining in advance which options the consumer will find most helpful. Of course, there’s always the danger that the personalization system will get that wrong, but let’s put that aside: in PML terms, let’s assume that ophthalmologists really are most interested in eyes and not noses. Yet even an ophthalmologist’s experience is diminished if she only sees that part of Mona Lisa. More broadly, we can say that consumers might enjoy seeing things they didn’t expect and making discoveries for themselves. Personalization prevents this from happening. Also bear in mind that real people have multiple interests: some ophthalmologists are also art lovers, and indeed some are also interested in geology and hair dressing. So personalization may be correct about the user’s primary interest and still make the wrong choice about what they’d find useful in a particular situation.
- From the company perspective, personalization limits the value presented to the consumer. For PML, you might think of the painting itself as the “company” that has something to offer – presumably, a delightful aesthetic experience. This experience is diminished if the picture is presented in pieces, so it’s in Mona Lisa’s interest to present herself as a whole even if the consumer might prefer a narrower view. In more conventional business terms, the company wants consumers to understand the breadth of its products and services and the promises made by its brand. Personalization does not optimize for these because it focuses only on the immediate transaction. Also remember that a personalized experience is relatively easy to implement in the digital world, but much harder to achieve with physical products or services. Those often involve situations where the user’s identity is unknown or where everyone is treated pretty much the same. So personalization may create diverse brand promises that the company ultimately cannot deliver.
- Society has an interest in building a community with shared experiences and understandings. While opinions about social health differ, I think most people would agree that fragmented communities are problematic. To take one common concern, it’s hard to build political consensus when different parties get wildly different versions of the news from different outlets. PML presents a very literal illustration of this problem: different people view the same painting but actually see totally different things. It would be very hard for them to have a meaningful discussion after their visit.
I'm not saying that personalization is always bad. There are many times when the consumer has a specific purpose and is best served when personalization helps her accomplish it quickly and easily. The trick is knowing when that’s the best approach and when it’s better to let the consumer can see a bigger picture and maybe explore a bit before getting down to business. Personalization isn’t always bad but it isn’t always good either. Marketers need to make considered decisions about when and how to apply it.
Taking my own advice, I’ll now return to take a broader view of PML herself. After all, there's more to life than marketing.
- PML’s division of Mona Lisa into pieces could be a reference to objectification of women: seeing them as objects that exist for the use of others, and in particular as collections of (mostly sexual) body parts. In Mona’s case, this is doubly ironic because she is, in fact, a painting – an actual object, not a person. Even more ironically, cutting the physical Mona into pieces would destroy her value – the exact reversal of the usual relationship where focusing on female body parts creates more value. Digging still deeper into the irony pit, Mona was the wife of a merchant who paid Leonard to create her portrait in good part to show he could afford it: so the world’s most famous example of “high art” was a thoroughly commercial object from the beginning. I'll let you follow this trail to questions about the intrinsic value and purpose of art.
- Or let’s back up and take a different path. PML’s treatment of the painting as an object can remind us that real-life Mona was herself treated as an object, sitting with her mouth shut while the artist and her husband made every the important decision. Capturing her personal identity was so unimportant that there is still some doubt about whom the picture actually portrays. Yet this person who was effectively anonymous in life has now become literally the best known face in the world. Would you like a little more irony in your tea?
- Breaking Mona into pieces also raises the question of what makes her so special. It clearly isn’t any individual piece, so it must be something about the whole. But when you look at the entire painting to find what's unique, nothing really jumps out. In fact, Mona is rather plain and so are her clothes, setting, and background. So we've reached the question of celebrity: why is this painting so famous when it’s not really that different from many other paintings? In Mona's case there's a specific historical answer which is actually quite interesting. But that's less important than the broader question is, How does celebrity happen and why? Clearly the answer lies more in the viewer than the viewed. This in turn raises another question: by fracturing the mass audience into specialized sub-audiences, does personalization make celebrity different or even impossible?
That’s more than enough irony to meet your minimum daily requirement. So let’s take a more light-hearted look at how we could extend PML. Here are some possibilities:
- an extract of Mona’s hands targeted at a segment of “just got engaged”. This is intended as gentle teasing – it suggests that someone who just got engaged is so obsessed with her engagement ring that she wants to compare it with Mona’s. Beyond the teasing, it carries a deeper warning about the risks of simplistic stereotypes. There's also a reminder that people must look beyond themselves to appreciate what’s around them.
- an extract of Mona’s breast targeted at a segment of “pornographers”. What’s amusing here is that Mona’s breast is shown very modestly, so we’re lampooning the pornographer’s presumed obsession, the tendency to relate everything to sex, and the still broader idea that some people see everything in terms of business.
- a blank space targeted at a “jeweler”. This is a brain teaser: the viewer asks herself why and then tries to remember what jewelry Mona is wearing. She either remembers or looks up that Mona has no jewelry. That’s actually perplexing, since most portraits of the era were intended to advertise the owners wealth and included ostentatious jewelry as part of the display. Perhaps the viewer is even inspired to do a little research into why Mona is different. (And perhaps you will be too…so I won’t share what my own research uncovered.)
- a thumbnail of the full picture, targeted at “anonymous”. Hopefully you can figure this one out by yourself: since we can’t personalize for anonymous viewers, they get shown the whole picture. The irony here (one last spoonful before you go) is that the people who get the best Mona experience are those who give us the least data, and thus are impossible to personalize.Which pretty much summarizes my concerns about personalization.
You may be wondering why I haven’t offered an image of Mona’s smile: after all, it’s her most famous feature. There’s a bit of serendipity in that – I couldn’t think of a segment that would find the smile most interesting (it might be dentists but she doesn’t show any teeth). But, on reflection, not showing the smile is a powerful engagement device in itself, leading viewers to wonder, Where is it? and Why isn't it here? Perhaps, if they really get into the spirit of things, they'll even ask themselves, What segment would it fit? Most interestingly, leaving out the smile illustrates what I think I'll christen the Mona Lisa Paradox: finding the best image for each segment could leave no one seeing the most important image of all. That’s yet another reason to be cautious about over personalization.
So, right now I'm sure you're thinking, “Wow this is fun. Can I play this game at home?”
You sure can. Take a copy of Mona Lisat (NOT the original, please) and cut it into pieces, each showing a recognizable image – her hand, the bridge, a sleeve, etc. Distribute the pieces among your uber-ironic friends and have them write a related customer segment on the back of each piece. Then show the rest of the group the front of each piece and have them guess the matching segment. Whoever gets the most right answers wins the game and becomes CMO for a day. Once you’re done with Mona, you can do this with other famous paintings too. Hours of fun!