LAS VEGAS—If you could give a company access to your data so it can help you choose a particular path in life, would you?
This is the mission of Incite, a company expected to play a central role in the third season of HBO’s Westworld, whose premiere is still under wraps. Incite will predict what path—and which decisions—will be best for you to take in life. All you have to do is give them your data.
At the Consumer Electronics Show, where the conference is part futuristic spectacle, part immersive wonderland, it’s not hard to imagine a universe where robots rule the world. Or at the very least, eavesdrop on attendees discussing artificial intelligent platforms or the most recent privacy concerns about companies like Facebook and Google.
In the leadup to the conference, I got a mysterious invitation to attend a dinner with a weird company called Incite hosted by HBO and Giant Spoon, the agency behind this experience (read: experiential marketing stunt) and figured, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
(Giant Spoon has a longtime relationship with HBO, working on freaky projects like its real-life Westworld activation at SXSW and a Game of Thrones activation that had attendees donating blood, also at SXSW.)
The weirdness began from the jump, when the invitation asked for links to my social media accounts and asked if I was afraid of the future. (As a millennial strapped with the spirit of a 92-year-old [that is aging more quickly every day I spend in Vegas], the answer is yes, most certainly.)
Regardless, I flagged a private Instagram (good luck) and a Twitter account that contains mostly news links, with the occasional spicy pic of a baby animal, perhaps a reference to my homeland. My colleague, Nick Gardner, a video producer/editor and host of the Gen ZEOs podcast here at Adweek, also complied with these demands.
We didn’t hear anything else until Gardner received a formal reminder of the dinner in the mail. When you opened up the invitation, a mirror showed your reflection looking back at you. Dun dun dun…
On the night of the dinner, we strolled up to the NoMad Las Vegas restaurant, and a woman immediately approached me by name. It set the tone for the night, which operated on about those same levels of creepy. The night didn’t have the kind or type of information that would be keep-me-up levels of spooky, but it also doesn’t feel great to have a stranger greet you by name and know exactly how you spent the holidays, for instance.
“Given that CES is a breeding ground and hotbed for conversation around the future of data privacy,” said Steven Cardwell, vp of program marketing at HBO, “we thought this was a really great way to bring the conversation to the thought leaders who are here at CES.”
An incredible amount of work went into researching each person who attended the two dinners offered Tuesday night, and will attend the dinner still scheduled for tonight, according to Trevor Guthrie, co-founder of Giant Spoon. Once our information was submitted, a complete creep session went into effect. Employees did deep dives on participants, combing through the internet’s archives, digging up relics like old school newspaper articles and photographs. Nothing like a brand stalking you!
“The team went much further down in layers in constructing a profile for each individual,” Guthrie said.
What resulted was a massive script for the roughly two-hour affair that spanned 600 pages. Each person who attended had a script related to their storyline, as did each table of six people, and the room itself that played host to media, tech innovators and HBO nerds.
Somehow, the conversation at our table seemed to flow so naturally into each topic (i.e. podcasts) that it was extremely off-putting when an actor came by to comment on such connections. We began pointing fingers to see who was the snitch and picking up the table setting to see where we were bugged (there were no mics in the room, we’re told).
Incite employees (trained actors) were on hand to introduce parties as they mingled over Champagne flutes and cocktails (I went with The Path, which was basically a fancy paloma, but the names of each cocktail retained a similar cheery theme, like The Only Choice and Our World). We were told to sit down after the night’s host got on a small stage and introduced Incite.
“Life doesn’t have to be as complicated and chaotic as it so often seems,” she told the room. Clearly, Incite has never been on Twitter.
Once seated, we had custom menus for the evening based on what Incite gathered about us, and table conversations were only casually interrupted by those actors to make note of the information they had discovered. Details were not left out of the planning. The cocktails’ ice was branded with “III” (for the third season) and a pianist played in the background, at times notes of the Westworld theme song.
The evening built up to a keynote address where Incite “selected” a participant from the crowd to highlight (in our instance, a woman) what her life would’ve been like if she had made different decisions, like chosen a different college, a different partner or different job. The room was aghast as Incite went through these details and in a dramatic (albeit reasonable) reaction to what her life might look like, the (presumed actress) left the room in tears.
At the end of the dinner, everyone received a personalized leather bill holder, like one would get at a restaurant, with their initials and branded with the Westworld name. But inside was the crème de la crème: a prediction of where my life would go. It was a horoscope on steroids, giving me career advice and also casually telling me how long I would live. Some participants had significantly more good summers left than others based on those readings, and it was clear who in the room wasn’t served such good news by the algorithm.
Don’t worry though, Incite says I have plenty of time left to give the ad industry my data. Here’s to the next 86 years, seven months and five days.