I have seen the future of marketing, and it is terrifying. Not long ago I paid Chili’s a visit, after hearing about their new campaign to make their food more shareable on social media. The company is hoping more customers will take selfies with burgers in hand, so they spent $750,000 annually to give their buns that subtle glow that works so well with that Lo-Fi filter.
They’re also serving their onion rings and french fries in fancy stainless steel basket, and plating their burgers with more height, so they almost reach for your lens. But as you can see in my photo, the higher you build something up the harder it falls. This is how my burger was delivered to me by my server. My photo only got six likes, compared to the hundreds earned by a slice of coconut cream pie late last fall, but I’m still glad for the experience. I was given a chance to sit face to face with my own personal tablet while I ate, and it gave me visions of the apocalypse.
Chili’s partnered up with Ziosk in 2013 to place 45,000 tablets on tables across the country. The tablets let you order another round of drinks or pay your tab. You can even play Scrabble if your date is boring. Last summer, data from those tablets ended up in several news articles. Wouldn’t you know it: people have increased their average tip and they’re buying desert more often. Of course they are.
Just before I ordered my burger, a manager type turned the tablet on my table to face me and gave me some quick tips. He showed me how to grab another drink and showed me how to sign up for Chili’s reward system. Then he walked away and left me alone with The System. I could feel it staring at me (yes they have cameras).
While I ate my burger, I was bombarded with commercials containing Instagram-ready pictures of tacos. I saw commercials for American Express and I got invited to play games for a dollar. Between the commercials, there were seemingly random trivia questions. Hey, did you know they average family car is only used for one hour a day? I guessed three because I live in Dallas, and when I made my selection another commercial popped up. It was for Uber and I was forced to consider all the money I could save if I gave up my main vehicle.
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I could have turned the screen around, but I didn’t. I was too busy wondering how much subliminal bullshit was being funneled into my brain by yet another screen. That’s when I had my vision.
Right now scientists are working on digital screens almost as flexible as fabric. The technology is prohibitively expensive now, but in my dream they got the cost down to about a dollar a square foot. At that price, you could lay screens over everything. You could laminate tables, cover the walls and floors, you could even wrap them around the tree that’s just outside the window. Wait, is that a window?
Those screens could then pump your head full of marketing and you might not even know it. Imagine a screen that looks like a normal street scene. You’re watching a dog take a shit outside your window, and just before you turn away, the dog looks at you and says, “don’t forget to add the bacon.”
Talking, shitting dogs is where I draw the line, so I snapped back to reality and paid for my meal. I did this with my credit card, using the tablet without any help from the staff, and then I walked out the door without hearing a single goodbye. The tablet asked me how my meal was, but when I tried to tell it I was ushered into a survey that had more screens than I was willing to deal with. And that’s the impersonal service that is causing diners to tip more, and tack on a 1240-calorie skillet toffee fudge brownie before they go home and pass out with visions of Chili’s menu items dancing on the backs of their eyelids.