Mark Ritson: Marketers’ silence on Cambridge Analytica speaks volumes

Marketers know consumers are shocked at the level of Facebook user data that Cambridge Analytica acquired, but they can say nothing without admitting they have been targeting people in the same way for years.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie testifying to the House of Commons DCMS committee on 27 March

It’s ironic, is it not. We marketers spend our lives trying to get the public’s attention. Finally, a story comes along – in the shape of the Cambridge Analytica saga – that propels marketing, advertising and consumer behaviour onto the front pages of the world’s media for two weeks. And yet, despite this global popularity, marketers appear reticent to take a stand.

It has not been unusual this past fortnight to see the Cambridge Analytica story and its links to Donald Trump, Facebook and Brexit simultaneously dominate the news reporting of The Guardian, the Financial Times, The New York Times, ITV, the BBC, Channels 4 and 5, and Sky News. But turn to the marketing and advertising press and the whole Cambridge Analytica saga is being treated like any other minor story. Like a 40-year-old virgin who suddenly finds himself with a certain night of hot passion and demurs at the last minute because he has a bus to catch, we marketers seem to be stepping away from the story just as it heads for centre stage. Why is that?

READ MORE: Facebook users rethink attitude to sharing data after Cambridge Analytica breach

The answer is complex. But if you look across the various tribes and factions that make up modern marketing, no one has anything to gain from the downfall of Cambridge Analytica. In fact, the longer you examine this ever-unravelling story the more apparent it becomes that most marketers really have no option but keep their disciplinary traps shut.

The traditionalists

A significant proportion of marketers have expressed concerns in the past that digital communications is not all it is cracked up to be. They point to bots, ad fraud, strange unexplained payment structures and the general shadiness behind the big walled gardens of Facebook and Google, and shake their heads suspiciously.

I’d put myself at least one foot into this camp, believing that new advertising tools have added much to the tactical party but not half as much as many ‘digital marketers’ would have you believe. For even more staunch traditionalists, there is almost no value to be had in the digital swings and roundabouts of Instagram and programmatic.

One might imagine that these traditionalist marketers are now enjoying open season as scandal after scandal dogs Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and a host of other digital players. But, of course, there is a catch here. You can’t spend the last seven years bemoaning the overstatement of digital media’s impact on consumers and now – suddenly – proclaim the same tools to be possible to swinging the White House into Trump’s grasp or pushing the UK out of Europe. Last year, you were busy explaining to your mates in the pub what a waste of money digital was for a toothpaste company; now it’s responsible for the end of the democratic status of Western economies. Surely not.

The digital natives

And the reverse applies to the long-standing enemy of the traditionalists: the digerati, who have openly dismissed the value of traditional media and predicted its demise as the rise of the tablet and the smartphone take hold of consumer attention. For digital natives, the actual audience data is less important than the obvious observation that they, and all their friends, don’t watch TV but do spend hundreds of hours on their phones.

But that open support for the power of digital media in all its forms now represents a bit of a barrier. If digital natives spring to the defence of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook too quickly or with too much vehemence they face the genuine risk of being associated with all the things – Trump, Russia, dark closed systems for thought control, right wing politics – that most of these bright young people should be opposed to. Better to stay quiet, see out the storm and, ironically, stand over in the silent corner next to the traditionalists in their cardigans saying nothing about the whole saga until the heat dies down.

The Ehrenberg Bass apostles

Small but influential, Professor Byron Sharp and his long tail of advocates have made quite the reputation for themselves in recent years, discounting the value of targeting and promoting the more complex idea of ‘sophisticated mass marketing’. To be fair to Sharp, he is often misquoted as being in favour of simply targeting everyone in the category with the same approach. His more nuanced argument posits that should there be meaningful differences between segments but then all should be targeted, albeit with different, appropriate positioning. It is not mass marketing, it is more sophisticated than that.

But the problem here is that Cambridge Analytica did not just employ sophisticated mass marketing, it went the whole hog and ran very specific targeted marketing campaigns for Trump while an allegedly linked Canadian company used the same technology on behalf of the Vote Leave campaign during the EU Referendum.

In the past two weeks I’ve had the same conversation with several senior marketers. The marketer inevitably says with a sheepish grin: ‘We’ve been doing this shit for years’.

Talking yesterday (27 March) to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee at the House of Commons, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie made headlines with his testimony that the Leave campaign had used a company called Aggregate IQ, which he suggested had direct access to Cambridge Analytica’s databases. Wylie suggested that it was “completely reasonable” to say that the referendum would have had a different outcome without the data and marketing tactics that Aggregate IQ sanctioned.

More important for marketers, however, was Wylie’s testimony that between “five and seven million” people were targeted by the Leave campaign. To a traditional marketer, such an approach makes perfect sense. Identifying which voters could be swayed in their decision-making, and then focusing on this smaller group at the expense of the broader electorate, is basic strategy. Except if you are worshipping at the Church of Byron Sharp, in which case there has to be a specific and extremely complicated reason why either the Brexit campaigners were in actual fact targeting everyone or this campaign clearly did not work, despite what everyone is starting to suggest.

Facebook’s defence

The five days it took Facebook to make any official comment on the Cambridge Analytica saga speaks volumes about the company’s reticence to say anything other than ‘sorry, we will do better’ at this stage. Believe it or not, I have some sympathy for Facebook in all of this. It really has not done that much wrong.

At the very worst some of the executives may have been economical with the truth and some of their corporate affairs people really could learn how to deal with governments in a more respectful way. But for all the headlines demonising Mark Zuckerberg and demanding that users #DeleteFacebook, there is a significant absence of any major crimes of which to accuse the company.

That might lead you to expect Facebook to leap forward and defend its corporate reputation, to assuage its declining share price and general corporate reputation. But it, too, is trapped here. Facebook might have done very little wrong, but the fact that much of what is being reported is permissible according to Facebook’s user agreement does create something of a crisis for the social media giant.

As users discover that their phone calls and SMS messages may have been collected by Facebook for many years, or that their own data could have been accessed by Facebook via one of their friends on the social media platform, there is a growing sense of shock. But as several Facebook’s executives have pointed out, all of this is clearly stated in the terms and conditions which every user is presented with before they join Facebook.

“People are expressly asked if they want to give permission to upload their contacts from their phone – it’s explained right there in the apps when you get started,” Facebook pointed out in a terse statement earlier this week.

While normally we might expect Facebook to present its case more strongly, it too is opting for a quieter, more conservative stance because the more it makes a legitimate defence of its systems the less sympathetic it becomes, and the more negative PR about the company and its unparalleled data it generates.

CMOs keep quiet

Usually it’s the big advertisers that make the big headlines when it comes to digital marketing. The last few years have seen a string of top CMOs step onto conference stages and demand better this or lesser that. But they, too, have been curiously quiet thus far on the topic.

The reason for their reticence is simple. Not only are most of them acutely aware of the extended data services that exist for most customers who use social media, they have been using that data for their own commercial tactics for several years now – and not just Facebook data. Every major digital channel presents clients with significantly more information on their target consumers than those consumers realise.

READ MORE: Mozilla becomes first brand to pull ads from Facebook following Cambridge Analytica scandal

It is not just digital channels either; consumers are completely unaware of the degree to which their own behaviours and activities have been recorded, sold and used to market to them. Most consumers in this country continue to believe that when they whip out their supermarket ‘loyalty’ card it is to get a reward for shopping there. The idea that the card allows the supermarket to scan the shopper, just like the tin of beans and bag of chips in their trolley, and add their name and address and buying history to the data record is lost on all but the most savvy of shoppers.

In the past two weeks I’ve had the same uncomfortable conversation with several senior marketers. We start with a quick summary of what is going on in the Cambridge Analytica saga. We shift to what this might mean for Facebook, digital media and general marketing. And then, after a pause, the marketer inevitably says with a sheepish grin: ‘We’ve been doing this shit for years.’

There is nothing illegal in building complex CRM systems that profile the customer market. The snag is that the consumers in question don’t realise that it has been going on. That those boxes they tick and the cards they swipe have been feeding advanced customer analysis tools for two decades. And no one out there in big brand land wants to stick their head over the media parapet and decry the current scandal because, quite frankly, there is something relatively similar going on at many big corporations.

The end result is a peculiar stand-off in which none of the industry’s constituent groups really want to say anything about the biggest marketing story in a lifetime. It makes no sense for anyone to start writing long columns about what is going on or why no one in marketing wants to talk about it. Best to keep quiet and let the storm pass.


Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next Marketing Week Mini MBA course from 24 April 2018. To book your place, sign up here.



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