Introducing supermarkets' new brand ambassadors: cheerful self-checkouts
A view from Russell Davies

Introducing supermarkets' new brand ambassadors: cheerful self-checkouts

They're so common now that observational comedians make jokes about how observational comedians no longer make jokes about them.

They’ve inserted more phrases into the language than the most virulently viral Tumblr. They’ve caused outbreaks of crime and declines in civility. We should do something about them. They’re those talking self-checkout things in supermarkets. We’re going to have to get them right.

The problems are obvious. First, the writing is awful: that inhuman jargon that sounds like no-one you know – "unexpected item", "bagging area"etc. Writers must cringe on every shopping trip – how easy would it have been just to give it to someone who knew what they were doing to make it human-listenable? Second, there’s the voice. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, it’s just always the same one. Visit a big supermarket at a busy time and you get 30 or 40 of the things going off at once, the same voice saying the same things at different times. It’s like being trapped in a mundane retail nightmare – as if The Grocer had directed a Buñuelian dream sequence. How hard would it have been to add a bit of variety, to record a slightly different script, to record another voice? Then it would have felt slightly more human.

The trick is to make something genuine and human for everyone, and everyone will think it's just for them

Give one of the machines a different voice and people will get a little attached to it. That’s got to be a competitive advantage for someone. NCR, the number-one supplier of these things in the UK, has decided that the right thing to do is personalise the voice response based on the details on your loyalty card. That is obviously a brilliant idea and no-one will ever be addressed as Ms Respondent when standing at the checkout. When will people learn? That kind of custom communications personalisation is a doomed and futile pursuit, always loaded with more downsides than benefits. The trick is the one the true artist learns – make something genuine and human for everyone, and everyone will think it’s just for them.

The best skills of advertising – squeezing a tiny moment of humanity into a commercial occasion, finding the poetry in selling and the lilt in transactions – are exactly what the next generation of robotic service delivery is going to need. We’re going to be interacting with more and more machines – often by voice – and it’s going to be here where the real skills of brand creation will come into play, bringing the brand to actual life in a real fake actual robot person. And then observational comics will have to find something else to no longer make jokes about.

Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service