Getting real about Facebook

Shane O’Leary gives his take on the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal

There’s a famous quote by Mark Twain about how companies go bankrupt in two ways – “gradually at first, but then all at once”. Recently, thoughts have come to mind about how it also applies to how major stories evolve in our age of fast flowing news. First you get some small ripples that hint towards broader macro issues.

Then momentum starts gathering and suddenly, unexpectedly, you get a tipping point with massive repercussions. It’s like a snowball effect. Across the last 18 months, we’ve seen the creation of GDPR legislation, the rise of adblocking and stories about how Russia ‘weaponised’ Facebook targeting to help swing the US election.

Taken in isolation, these each hint at a subtle awakening among consumers about how their data is used. Now we have a story that is the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ – the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations. No need to go into the detail. But what for me is the most interesting part is not the revelations themselves, it’s the outrage at Facebook allowing data to be used in a way that’s not unusual.

Game, setting and match: Mark Zuckerberg is simplifying Facebook’s privacy tools again on foot of the revelations about Cambridge Analytica harvesting Facebook data for targeting purposes and the resultant #DeleteFacebook movement. But greater transparency does nothing to counter the simple fact – Facebook’s shared data is its greatest asset.

Cambridge Analytica did not create some entirely new way of marketing. Attitudinal segmentation combined with media targeting is a method that brands use regularly. Sophisticated psychographic targeting is commonplace. It’s a fundamental part of advertising. The company was kicked off the platform because they mis-collected data (and for other personal allegations), not for what they did with the data.

Yet it’s the latter that seems to have caused alarm amongst the public. The reaction to the story reinforces how little public understanding there is of modern media methods. Digital media literacy, particularly when it comes to data usage, is poor among the general population. Speaking to friends from outside adland, there’s low levels of comprehension about how advertising online works. The recent Google Consumer Barometer said 89 per cent of Irish consumers believe data privacy and protection are very important, yet many seem to be completely unaware of the basics of targeting.

It should be alarming to us in adland. The modern internet is built on an implied agreement; “give us your data and we’ll give you access to social or search platforms for free”. But maybe the deal is only clear to one side. Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job educating people about how and why their data is being used.

It is an example of what’s called ‘the expert problem’ – because we’re immersed in this area, things that seem shocking to others seem normal to us. One man’s ‘creepy surveillance’, is another man’s ‘targeted digital advertising’. Therein lies the problem.

With GDPR also looming, maybe we should fear a further backlash as those outside the industry start to become more aware of our standard operating practices? It could be a story that will change advertising forever. Gradually at first, but then all at once.

Saying sorry in print

Staying on the topic of Facebook’s woes, their choice of media to apologise for the data controversy was interesting. At the end of March, the brand ran full page ads in a variety of US and UK newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Sunday Times to say ‘sorry’ for playing fast and loose with consumer data.

Why didn’t Facebook simply choose to use its own platform to apologise? One reason is the power that print advertising still holds. A recent study in Australia on media trust found that print is still by far the most credible medium around. This tallies with similar research that GroupM Ireland have conducted in recent days.

In a world of ‘fake news’ splashed across the web, print has retained its status. It’s still a premium environment that holds its value, particularly when compared to the long tail of the web or a social newsfeed. Print still delivers a positive signal of gravitas to the reader. While readership might be falling, and papers might be under pressure to cut journalism budgets, there is still immense power in the written word.

The newspaper industry needs to make more of that. Because premium brands, like Facebook, require more than just ‘brand safety’, they need high trust, premium environments to communicate important messages. Of course, another interesting angle to Facebook’s media choice is that their success in wrangling advertising budgets from big brands has largely come at the cost of print.

If you look at any graph showing media spend changes in the last decade, Facebook’s growth and print’s decline almost directly overlap. The medium they’ve chosen to apologise in is the one they’ve almost single-handedly decimated. Rock star Alanis Morissette co-wrote a song with Glen Ballard about situations like this: Ironic.

Shane O’Leary is strategy and insights manager with GroupM agencies Maxus and Mindshare


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