Under the Sun

It’s strange to be saying so on a July day widely predicted to be the UK’s hottest ever, but the fact is there really is nothing new under the sun.

Last evening, Netflix premiered their (really excellent) documentary ‘The Great Hack’ on the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal. Most everyone knows the story, for those who need a reminder here’s one of several Cog Blog posts.

Netflix had previewed the film at Cannes, with the help of Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative journalist who deserves immense credit for unearthing (and continuing to call out) the role that CA and their clients played in various elections around the world, and who features in the film.

Cadwalladr was in Cannes to take part in a discussion with Alexander Nix, CEO of the (now defunct) CA, who pulled out under pressure from ad industry critics.

This in itself was odd in that most of these vocal critics had had nothing at all to say about CA’s activities until the CEO dared to accept an invitation to that holy-of-holies, the Cannes stage, at which point they rather mysteriously found their voices.

Here’s Carole’s take on her first visit to Cannes: “It is the individuals here at Cannes that have the power to change. There is amazing power here, but with power comes responsibility, and I don’t really see that from the ad industry.”

In other words, we live in a world in which Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook flies the Atlantic to talk to the ad industry about all the ‘good things’ FB are doing to put right the wrongs caused (in her eyes) by bad actors, but won’t accept an invitation to speak to our law-makers in London.

Given that priority, surely the ad business should take some responsibility for calling out FB’s data misdemeanours?

Imagine yourself back in time. A newspaper with a large reach does something you consider beyond the pale (oh, I don’t know, like hacking the phone of a murdered teenager). Would you continue to advertise in that vehicle?

The evidence is that sufficient numbers would not, sufficient that is to drive the newspaper to close.

One newspaper executive told me that his standard response when faced with an advertiser claiming that newspapers don’t work is to ask why, in that case do Chief Executives go nuts whenever they’re written about in the papers’ editorial pages.

Of course newspapers ‘work’. It’s up to regulators to keep them honest, and it’s up to us to unlock how best to make them work for our clients’ brands.

Exposure on (the unregulated) Facebook ‘works’ too – one lesson from ‘The Great Hack’ is that a mix of a huge platform, masses of data, and carefully tailored messages delivers results – but so far those who’ve used it best are those who’ve used it politically, and by and large unethically.

There are lessons to be learned from this, although sticking Nigel Farage on the front of ‘Campaign’ and letting him get away with his man-of-the-people schtick in a naïve interview isn’t any way to learn them.

Good planning is all about using media forms optimally given their respective strengths. To quote from my best-selling book ‘Janet And John Do Media’, TV builds awareness and desire, print provides the detail. Radio and OOH build frequency. Online delivers immediate response. Most advertisers need some combination of these things.

This is so basic as to be laughable, yet because we have become so buying focussed we zero in on cheap gross impressions, likes, retweets and so on at the expense of considering how and why things work, and then designing accordingly.

So – FB delivers cheap impressions. Yippee doo. It also allows unsavoury actors onto its platform. It misuses personal data. It abuses trust. It defies regulation. But heh – look over here because it is really cheap!

Would we, or did we apply the same cavalier lack of ethical standards to ‘The News of the World’?

Are we doing enough to make advertisers as aware of Facebook’s shortcomings as we do to sell them on cheap exposures?

  1. Brian: Thanks for another excellent blog post. One thing that should be mentioned is that the ad industry isn’t just culpable for failure to “call out FB’s data misdemeanours” we are responsible for actively encouraging them. It is at the ad industry’s insistence that Facebook and friends collect, share and monetize personal private information about us without our knowledge or consent. I have no love for Facebook, but Facebook et al have been taking the heat for the ad industry for far too long.

  2. Thanks Bob. It’s worth remembering that FB has a hugely long tail of direct advertisers. I don’t know what % of their revenues come from media agencies or direct from what we would recognise as large advertisers but I suspect it’s lower than most would think. One Cog Blog reader described media agencies as the very small pimple on the very large arse of FB revenues, and that’s probably not too far wrong.
    That said, the big guys have a disproportionately loud voice, and should certainly be using it more usefully to bring about a change to more responsible behaviour.
    Hope you find time to watch The Big Hack…!

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