Advertising in a Digital World

I teach an advertising writing class as an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama. The other day, one of my students pointed to the screen of her laptop and asked, “Can we talk about this?” I looked over her shoulder. She had pulled up Facebook’s summation of all the data they had on her.  Pretty soon the others in the class were doing the same. The room clamored. “How do they know this?” “Where did they get this?” etc. What ensued was a long conversation about how data these days puts tremendous power in the hands of advertisers and how, as practitioners responsible for creating advertising, we have a responsibility to do the right thing. You know the old saw: with great power comes great responsibility. And truly, the power at our disposal as advertisers is great. Terrifying but great. What makes the power of data so frightening is the fact that so few people really understand it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that as you read this you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I really understand this whole data thing.” So, let’s dig in a bit shall we?

Generally speaking, everything we do online generates data. With a properly constructed strategy, I can see what your interests are, feed you messaging that aligns with your interests, track you as you pursue your interests on my website, continue to track you after you leave my website (all the while serving up more messaging that aligns with your interests), and even reconfigure my website just for you the next time you visit so that you are served up even more carefully targeted information. I can target and serve up messages specifically to your cell phone. I can target and serve up messages just to the building in which you work.  And, if I use a fancy pants algorithm (like the one used by Cambridge Analytica to influence our national election, the Brexit vote, and the Kenyan election) I can do predictive analysis of the messages that will move you the most emotionally. And—once again, generally speaking—I can do all of this without asking your permission. So, the question is this: is it right? And that was the very question my class was asking me. The answer isn’t easy.

What’s right about it. Let’s create a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that you are in the market for a bicycle. Better yet, let’s say that you really haven’t thought about a bicycle yet, but I can tell (from data) that you have recently moved from a sleepy town in south Georgia to New York City. And I know (from data) that a large percentage of folks who move from sleepy little towns to the Big Apple end up shopping for a bike. Now, in addition to knowing that you will need a bike, but don’t really know it yet, I also know that you are an environmentalist (from data), interested in causes that empower women (from data), prefer the colors crimson and white (from data), and have a fair amount of disposable income (yep, from data). I know you are female, 32 years old, single, and white (from data). Now, based on all of that, I’m able to put in front of you– by way of online advertising–a beautiful crimson and white bicycle, made by a company that uses recycled materials in its manufacturing process, and supports causes for women. In other words, I can begin to solve your problem before you know you have it, and in a way that will make you feel good about it. So, what could be wrong with that? The advertiser will argue that we are simply making it easier and more streamlined for you to find the things you want and need.

What’s wrong about it? Let’s take the same hypothetical situation from above. Only, my bicycle company doesn’t really support women’s causes and doesn’t use post-consumer material in manufacturing–in fact, couldn’t really give a horseapple about all that “environmental” B.S..

But, by golly, I know what you can afford to spend on a bicycle, and I know just as sure as the good Lord made little green apples and that you’re gonna want one as soon as you move to NYC. Well, I can still serve up information to you. It just might not all be true. But, I can for darn sure put it right in front of your eyeballs. Bottom line: I can use data, or I can exploit data. And the difference is huge.

Folks, we’ve entered into a new era driven by massive amounts of information. Most of it is aggregated through the passivity of online users, and all of it can be either used or exploited to motivate you to take some sort of action. It is true that if you don’t pay for a product, you are the product. It is true that your digital world will become more and more like a bubble in which you are only fed the kind of information you want to eat. It is true that your online activity is being watched in a very Orwellian way. You are empowered when you know this. You’re empowered when you know that the advertising messages put in front of you have found their way there because of data aggregated through Big Brother’s watchful ways. You’re empowered when you can tell that you’re being manipulated (whether you mind it or not).

On the first day of class at Alabama, I spoke to my budding young writers about the power of the truth in advertising. Fact is, I believe that the only way advertising can be any good at all is if it tells the truth. And that makes all the difference in whether brands are using data or exploiting it.