, June 15, 2017

Dark Advertising – Great Targeting or Devious Manipulation?

Psychographic targeting threatens a dark future.

I read an interesting article recently on how a large proportion of marketing professionals think they are spending too much on their digital marketing and are unsure of the returns but are still planning to invest more next year. It sounds like madness but of course this is true of many aspects of marketing communications spend. We’ve come a long way since John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” but however good your conversion metrics and quantitative research, there will always be an element of marcoms budget where the results are unclear. Well I used to believe that, but maybe there’s a dystopian version of the future where the dark arts of psychographics, linked to data that is newly available through social media, will give marketers near total control.

So why would somebody who has spent many years trying to refine and improve marketing communications campaigns consider achieving significantly more control as a negative? Partly because I have concerns about privacy and civil liberties. If social media users do not know how much information they are giving away about their lifestyle, their views and their desires and more importantly how that information is processed and used to manipulate them, then they cannot recognise that manipulation as it influences their behaviour. The term for this hidden manipulation is “Dark Advertising” and it is probably on your social media feed right now.

Are soap powder manufacturers now pulling our strings through “Dark Facebook” campaigns? The answer to that is we do not know. This advertising is seen by individuals, not groups. Strangely, it is the Machiavellian actions of politicians marketing their party’s manifestos, or more often negatively campaigning against their opponent’s weaknesses, that has brought this issue into the limelight. This Guardian article reveals the alleged “psychological operations” of the combined Leave campaigns and how they used American company Cambridge Analytica to use ‘big data and advanced psychographics’ to influence people. The Vote Leave campaign spent 98% of its 6.8m budget on digital media and a large proportion of that was on Facebook. Like it or loathe it, you have to recognise that it pulled off an impressive surprise victory.

You may be thinking “I made my mind up about Brexit months before the campaign and no Dark Advertising changed my mind.” Well, the clever thing about Dark Advertising is it knows you have probably made your mind up and focuses the budget on those that are more open to manipulation. It is able to look at a large number of psychological variables, pull them together into target groups (or non-target groups) and then focus the message that will most appeal to those groups.

This excellent article by Mark Ritson examines how the Conservatives used this process during the 2017 UK general election. They used Facebook’s combined geo-location capabilities, psychographic data and social ubiquity to focus on the small proportion of swing voters in what they thought were the key marginal seats with messages that were specifically designed to play to the hopes and fears of the individual voter. The video above is the type thing aimed at “Skeptical Socialists” who usually voted Labour but were concerned about Corbyn and his front bench. Brilliant but sinister.

Of course research also shows that the British public are highly skeptical of political advertising so maybe we are not so easily manipulated. And this form of advertising is available to competitors as well. Swing voters in marginal seats may well have found they were getting contradictory messages aimed at the same psychological insecurities.

With the election over and the benefits of hindsight available, it is generally thought that Labour, who managed to convince many younger voters of their suitability, won the social media war and the Conservatives fought the battle in the “wrong” marginal seats. However, the fact that during this election we were targeted and manipulated by one party more successfully than another does not bring enlightenment to Dark Advertising.

As a marketer who loves the concept of perfect targeting, I’m hugely impressed with the capability of Dark Advertising. As a citizen of the world and user of social media, I want a legislative framework that protects us all from hidden manipulation.

Photograph: Facebook


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