Mark Ritson: Marketers’ silence on Cambridge Analytica speaks volumes
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?
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.
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.
Read the full article on Marketing Week.