Cambridge Analytica

Charlatans or pioneers of Big Data and the digital revolution?

It may sound like the name of a shit font, but could the work being done by Big Data company Cambridge Analytica lead to major advances in targeting? The Blogfather looks at the cut of their jib.

This gives us the quite frightening possibility that they were capable of manipulating the electorate.

The name may be unfamiliar to you, but there are some who see British Big Data firm Cambridge Analytica as having had a deciding influence on two of the most seismic political events of 2016, or any year for that matter; Brexit and Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.

They first came to prominence during the EU Referendum where, allegedly, by analysing marketing and social media data, they modelled the personalities of voters in unprecedented detail, and thus helped the Leave campaign to victory. This, like a beautiful woman in a Moscow hotel lobby, caught Trump’s eye, and he promptly stuck them on the payroll too.

“I walk into a room. I announce that I am the handsomest man in the world. I have just "said" one thing, but communicated another. What I have communicated is that I am a big jerk.” The Ad Contrarian aka Bob Hoffman

Assumingly Cambridge Analytica’s email requests for a testimonial weren’t returned (we’ve all been there), as they had to resort to blowing their own massive trumpet (or tuba) when the U.S Election result broke: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump's extraordinary win.” Such a boastful and potentially unsubstantiated press release does not necessarily lend itself to respectability. Hat tip to this wonderful article on Messaging and Signaling by The Ad Contrarian.

But anyway, what lies at the heart of their methods, and what is of potentially great use to us marketers, is psychometrics. Sometimes also called psychographics, it is a data-driven sub-branch of psychology that’s focused on measuring psychological traits such as personality.

Cambridge Analytica refer to it as “Micro-targeting”. They are measuring people's personality from their digital footprints, based on the OCEAN model. For those who aren’t in the know, OCEAN is a system of assessment of human beings based on five personality traits: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (do you prefer plan and order?), extroversion (do you like spending time with others?), agreeableness (do you put people’s needs before yours?) and neuroticism (do you tend to worry a lot?).

In the U.S election, it is suggested they grouped people with similar traits and designed political advertising to match, whilst also delivering negative stories of Trump’s rival Clinton into the Facebook newsfeeds of wavering Democratic voters, pushing them to be more inclined to stay at home and not vote. This gives us the quite frightening possibility that they were capable of manipulating the electorate.

Whether they truly did affect the result of the U.S election and E.U referendum is hard to assess, although it is worth noting that Trump spent significantly less overall on his campaign than Hilary Clinton, yet significantly more than her on digital specifically.

It’s suspected in some quarters that Cambridge Analytica based their service on the work of Dr Michal Kosinski, the former Deputy Director of the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook "likes", it was possible to predict the user’s skin colour (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent).

So what enlightenment and knowledge can us marketers take from all this? It was only a few weeks ago that I blogged on data with a sceptical eye, and mentioned Dave Trott’s warning of “…reducing people to mere data,” amidst a climate in recent years that’s seen a strong movement away from most targeted approaches. But Cambridge Analytica’s work sends us completely to the other end of the spectrum. It’s using data to get into the heads of individuals to understand how their minds work, and deliver different, tailored messages accordingly, all to affect their voting, or buying behaviour.

Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, states that “traditional blanket advertising is dead”. If I run with it, in my mind’s eye, I see a future vison. Forget mass leaflet drops that target working class sectors of certain post codes, say. I picture two people in different apartments in the same block, they share a dividing wall, on both their TV’s is an advert for the same bank, on first glance it appears like the same ad, but each advert has slightly different tonality, playing on their own personal hopes/fears for the future, all determined by psychometrics…

It’s interesting, and fuels the creative imagination, but is it really, practically, going to change things any time soon? Mark Ritson is optimistic. He sees the coming together of big data, psychometrics segments and addressable advertising as offering a powerful new step in the evolution of marketing communications; “we may be about to become as smart and as powerful as everybody in the market assumed we always were”.

That may be so, but it remains to be seen if our industry has anything like the capability to produce the volume or variety of hyper-personalised persuasive creative to so many different segments that seems to be exciting people.

Going back to almost the forgotten man, Dr. Kosinski, he drew quite an astute picture of our smartphones being “a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.” If so, then the importance bestowed on mobile by marketer’s will only grow greater.

Behaviour is driven by personality, and at Gasp we increasingly having an eye on Behavioral economics (the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals), which, in truth, should shape all marketing/advertising thinking to some degree.

For if data can truly be the key to detecting and pinpointing the people who are likely to have the greatest, positive emotional reaction to an advert you are running, then that’s an exciting, and highly powerful, development.

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