In March 2018, Facebook announced they would no longer integrate with third-party data providers that enable marketers to create targeted audiences on its platform as a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Consequently, I wrote an article about this entitled Facebook’s Red Herring, because that is exactly what it was–a very artful distraction and attempt to deceive consumers into believing Facebook’s action was about addressing their privacy. But that is not what it was about.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was about data leaving Facebook and being used in ways that were not authorized by participants of the survey. The decision to dissolve third-party data partnerships is about data that goes into Facebook to segment audiences for relevant targeting. However, what consumers have not seen the same publicity on is that Facebook has modified their stance on third-party partnerships so their data can still be used. The point I made in my article is that Facebook demonized third-party data providers in the press by announcing their dissolution of partnerships while avoiding the same public scrutiny around the real reason for their action.
Marketers can still append third-party data, which is compiled by a vendor to provide context, to a customer or prospect outside of Facebook and then ‘onboard it’ for digital marketing. Marketers simply need to sign an agreement with an onboarding provider that includes Facebook’s new terms and conditions. They can then append third-party information to customer lists and create target groups, or they obtain prospect lists of their target groups from a third-party data provider. From there advertisers onboard that data and upload it via Campaign Manager to Facebook. Some onboarders such as LiveRamp have third-party data available in their platforms so prospect audiences can be created and pushed to Facebook without the need to purchase the prospect list with personally identifiable information (PII) from the third-party data provider.
Regardless of how the marketer goes about it, once data is onboarded or audiences are created in an onboarding platform, they can be activated (used for media purchase) on Facebook. Voilá – third party data is still being used on Facebook. Facebook’s move to divorce themselves from third-party data did not mean it couldn’t be used, they are just requiring an additional step that many marketers are already proficiently executing.
If you are unfamiliar with how consumer data onboarding works, here is a short explanation: Consumer data onboarders like LiveRamp, Neustar and Oracle move offline marketing lists containing PII such as CRM data, loyalty databases, prospecting lists, etc., to the online ecosystem and match or link (via a common identifier such as email address) to cookies and device IDs in a privacy-compliant manner. The reason this matching is considered privacy compliant is because consumer PII is anonymized. Marketers never receive which specific cookies and device IDs are associated with the consumer profile.
Sorry dear consumer, Facebook’s dissolution of third-party data partnerships continues to be a red herring and does not prevent such data from being used on their platform. Furthermore, Facebook continues to collect and store first-party data (i.e., owned by them) on you that advertisers can leverage for target audience creation; and they have those rights because it is buried in the required terms and conditions you consented to when your account was created.
So, while Facebook has demonized third-party data in the press right after the Cambridge Analytica scandal (even though completely unrelated to the latter’s dubious use), they have not prevented its use. Frankly, I find Facebook’s use of first-party data and passive surveillance via their pixel on other websites resulting in those creepy retargeting advertisements much more intrusive then my being a member of a target audience based on my demographics and other modeled assumptions.
Consumer trust is the new “oil” in today’s data economy, and it requires more than lip service. Perhaps it is time for Facebook to figure that out.
Cambridge Analytica collected data on over 50 Million Facebook users without their consent. How? Dr. Aleksander Kogan a psychology professor at Cambridge University built a survey on Facebook that many users participated in. However, only 270,000 of those participants consented to their data being used and according to the New York Times that consent was for “academic purposes” only. Cambridge Analytica told the Times that they did receive the data, however they blamed Mr. Kogan for violating Facebook’s terms. Facebook claims that when they learned of this violation they took the app off their site and demanded all the data Cambridge Analytica acquired be deleted. Facebook claims they now believe all that data was not destroyed. The problem described is an issue of data LEAVING Facebook and consumer consent, not data going into Facebook.
Yesterday, Facebook announced that it will sever all ties with third party data partners to protect consumer privacy. Some privacy proponents believe that this is a great step in protecting the privacy of consumers. In my opinion, this is a red herring and has nothing to do with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, nor has Facebook done anything substantial with this decision to protect your privacy. Let’s start with some standard definitions before I go on and explain why this is nothing other than a distraction.
Third-party data is used by marketers to help them create marketing messages that are more relevant to target a segment. Segmentation is when a marketer defines a group of consumers (current customers or prospects) that have similar attributes. Marketers will then send the same message to that group (a different message to every individual would not be practical). For example, a segment could look something like “people between 25-45, with young children in the household and an interest in skiing”.
Third-party data comes from many sources (there are thousands of sources). For example, demographic information which is a description of the individual such as age, income, marital status, children in the home, etc. is all public information that can be gathered from sources such as the census. Another type of third party data is behavioral data and that can include what types of interests you have. For example, if you have a magazine subscription to a golf magazine or to a hiking magazine, likely that magazine has sold its’ subscriber list data and associates you with an interest in that category. Another way behavioral data is collected is by observing what content you click on, read or share socially. For example, if you share an article on Aspen Ski Vacations, you are likely categorized as someone with an interest in skiing. Purchase data is collected on individuals as well and can be done many ways. For instance, whenever you buy anything with a warranty that you register (like consumer electronics), your personal information is then associated with that purchase. Another source of purchase data can be credit card companies, banks and credit bureaus. Your purchases can be analyzed and then assumptions about other consumers that have similar attributes to you can be inferred (this is called look-a-like or LAL in the data industry). Your actual personal information tied to your specific transactions are NOT available on the market to buy (unless there has been a data breach at one of these organizations, then your information could be on the darknet). All these data sources in combination can be used to infer assumptions about you and others to improve advertisement targeting.
Bringing the thousands of data sources together would be near impossible for every marketer to vet for privacy compliance much less analyze and create the needed elements and models to perform audience segmentation. Therefore, data aggregators such as Acxiom, Experian, Equifax, Trans Union, Oracle, Cardlytics and many others step in. They aggregate multiple data sources so that they can be easily transformed into elements and models that enable segmentation. Some aggregators are much better than others at ethically sourcing their data. The best ones have a process where they vet data sources through their privacy departments and policies to insure consumers gave consent for the data being included as a source in the elements and models created for marketing use. Furthermore, the best aggregators are also transparent with consumers by allowing them to see what data they have and provide the ability to opt out. Finally, the more credible aggregators will not source data in sensitive categories such as sexual orientation or health indications for example.
When marketers leverage social media or digital publishers to advertise they can select elements and models supplied by aggregators to narrow the target audience. Marketers don’t want to advertise baby products to people that are most likely not parents, nor do they want to push golf products on someone who is likely never going to be a golfer. Furthermore, if marketers were not able to target audiences then advertising costs would become unrealistic for all digital media and those increased costs will need to be absorbed somewhere. Possibilities could include increased prices on goods or subscriber fees to use social platforms which would be wildly unpopular with consumers.
Facebook’s announcement yesterday was that they will no longer partner with data aggregators enabling marketers to target on the platform. Regardless of how you feel about third-party data for targeting, this has nothing to do with the Cambridge Analytica controversy. The Cambridge Analytica issue was about Facebook’s user data going out of Facebook to be analyzed and used without consent from the user. Facebook’s recent action is targeting aggregators of data going into the platform. In my opinion, this is a red herring to distract consumers that do not understand what Facebook is really doing.
In my March 2018 article, When Advertisements Become Too Personal I noted how Facebook leverages trackers that passively surveil consumers and collects that data. Facebook uses trackers to conduct surveillance on you without your conscious knowledge since you likely agreed to this surveillance in the terms of service and privacy policies on their platform and advertiser websites. Consumers don’t have the time to read through long privacy policies, terms and conditions. Furthermore, if consumers don’t agree to a digital property’s terms, often they can’t do business on or use the platform. Advertisers can still target on Facebook without aggregator data being available on the platform. For example, a Facebook Custom Audience is a targeting option created from an advertiser owned customer list, so they can target users on Facebook. Facebook Pixel is a small piece of code for websites that allows the website owner AND Facebook to log any Facebook users. Facebook also tracks the kind of content you share, who you are friends with, what your friends share, what you like, what you talk about in Instant Messenger, what you share on Instagram and other Facebook owned properties. Facebook can aggregate all that data themselves to create targeting tools.
Facebook’s own passive surveillance on us across all their platforms, messaging applications, other websites and even texts on our phones (if you haven’t locked down those permissions) is a much larger concern in my opinion. Instead Facebook is distracting consumers with this announcement into thinking they are making a huge step to protect consumer privacy when in fact the data they have and continue to collect on consumers is much more unsettling.
With the proliferation of media channels over the last 20 years, advertisers have taken advantage of marketing technologies combined with data to serve more personalized advertisements to consumers. Personalization is a marketing strategy that delivers specific messages to you by leveraging data analysis and marketing technology enabling them to target (the ability to identify a specific person or audience). Thus, companies leverage many data sources about you whether obtained directly from you, purchased from data brokers, or passively collected on you (tracking your online behavior). There are advantages to this as a consumer such as advertisement relevance, time savings and product pricing. For example, I don’t like to see the media I consume littered with advertisements on golf equipment or hunting gear, since the products are not of any interest to me. Secondly, I hate it when I have already purchased a product the same product shows up in Facebook, as this is just a waste of my attention. Rather, the marketer should show me something that is at least complimentary to what I have already purchased instead of wasting my time. There is a good reason for optimizing advertising because if targeting were not available companies would need to increase their advertising budgets every time a new media channel presented itself resulting in price increases to consumers. From an advertiser perspective, there is no argument with the return on investment that leveraging data for targeting provides across all channels which is why almost all companies engage in the practice. However, there are times when advertiser personalization attempts cross the line and it recently happened to me.
Last December I had a health matter I needed to address. My doctor recommended I try a supplement that can be only bought online. After trying some samples provided by my doc, I went directly to the company’s website and made the purchase. I never viewed the company’s page nor saw an advertisement for the product on Facebook (i.e. I left no previous online behavior that could be tracked). One day later, a post showed up on my Facebook feed from that same company.
I immediately yelled “Are You F***ing Kidding Me???” among other things. So dear reader…..you now know I bought a supplement called Serenol which helps alleviate PMS symptoms – hence my use of four letter words above (yes it works). From my perspective this was a complete invasion of my privacy and feels unethical. It may also be against HIPAA laws, or it should be! In the end, what this means, is Serenol, without my permission, disclosed my health condition. Furthermore, it also begs the question: Now that Facebook has this data on me how will they use it moving forward?
Being from the data integration and marketing technology industry myself I personally have a moderate perspective on the use of data attributes for targeted marketing. I don’t want to see advertisements from companies that are completely irrelevant to me nor do I want to pay increased prices for goods and services, thus I have some comfort with use of my data. However, this scenario violated my personal boundaries, so I downloaded a tracker monitor and followed the data.
Ghostery provides a free mobile browser and search engine plug-in for tracking the trackers, something anyone can access for free.
Ghostery shows you what type of trackers are firing on any website that you visit. With this tool I learned there were multiple pixels firing on Serenol’s site, Facebook being one of many. The two pixels that interested me most were the “Facebook Custom Audiences” and the “Facebook Pixel” trackers. The custom audience pixel enables Serenol (or any other advertiser) to create Facebook Custom Audiences based on their website visitors.
A Facebook Custom Audience is essentially a targeting option created from an advertiser owned customer list, so they can target users on Facebook (Advertiser Help Center, 2018). Facebook Pixel is a small piece of code for websites that allows the site owner AND Facebook to log any Facebook users (Brown, Why Facebook is not telling you everything it knows about you, 2017). Either of these methods would have enabled the survey post I was shown from Serenol. What likely happened is Serenol and Facebook used these tags to conduct surveillance on me without my conscious knowledge and re-targeted me, hence the offending post. Yes – this is technically legal. Why? Because, I mostly likely agreed to this surveillance in the terms of service and privacy policies on each site. Also, this method of targeting does not provide data back to Serenol who I am on Facebook, only Facebook knows. However, now Facebook has data that associates me with PMS!
Facebook collects information on things you do such as content you share, groups you are part of, things someone may share about you (regardless of whether you granted permission), payment information, the internet connected devices you and your family own and information from third-party partners including advertisers (Data Policy , 2016). They can monitor your mouse movements, track the amount of time you spend on anything and the subject of your photos via machine learning algorithms. Furthermore, when you do upload photos, Facebook scans the image and detects information about that photo such as whether it contains humans, animals, inanimate objects, and potential people you should tag in the picture (Brown, The amount of data facebook collects from your photos will terrify you, 2017). The social media company directly states in their data policy that they use the information they collect to improve their advertising (this means targeting) and then measure such advertising effectiveness (Data Policy , 2016). While Facebook’s data policy states that they do not share personally identifiable information (PII), they do leverage non-personally identifying demographic information that can be used for advertisement targeting purposes provided they adhere to their advertiser guidelines (Data Policy , 2016). This policy is subject to all Facebook companies, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. So that private message you are sending on Messenger isn’t as private as you think, Facebook is collecting data on that content. With Facebook owning 4 of the Top 5 Social Media applications, isn’t this a little creepy?
The next obvious question, is how can this data be used for nefarious purposes? Facebook’s advertiser policies state that an advertiser can’t use targeting options to discriminate against or engage in predatory advertising practices (Advertising Policies, n.d.). While they do withhold some demographics from certain types of advertising like housing, there are other questionable practices for targeting. For example, last year an article appeared in AdAge that called out Facebook, LinkedIn and Google who all allow employment advertising targeting using age as a criteria. Facebook has defended using the demographic despite criticism the practice contributes to ageism in the workforce and is illegal in the actual hiring practices of public companies (Sloane, 2017).
So, can Facebook use data about my PMS for targeting? Will they allow potential employers to use this data? What about health insurance companies? This is a slippery slope indeed. The answer is yes, and no. Facebook recently updated its’ policies and now they prevent advertisers from using targeting attributes such as medical conditions (Perez, 2018). This means that Facebook will not provide demographic selection data in their targeting tools to select or deselect users based on medical conditions. This type of targeting requires using third-party data, meaning that the advertiser is using the data provided by Facebook or other data aggregators to create an audience. However, I did not find anything that prevents companies like Serenol from using first-party data to find me on Facebook. Furthermore, when I went to the Serenol site on February 21st, 2018 (after the Facebook policy update), Ghostery showed that Facebooks’ Pixel and Facebook for Developers along with other pixels and tags from The Trade Desk, Adobe, Google, etc. were all live on the site.
This month’s Harvard Business Review published an article about how consumers react to personalization. The authors ran a series of experiments to understand what causes consumers to object to targeting and found out that we don’t always behave logically when it comes to privacy. People will often share details with complete strangers while keeping that information secret from those where close relationships exist. Furthermore, the nature of the information impacts how we feel about it – for example data on sex, health and finances are much more sensitive. Secondly, the way that data exchanges hands (information flows) matter. They found that sharing data with a company personally (first party sharing) generally feels fine because it is necessary to purchase something or engage with a company. However, when that information is shared without our knowledge (third-party sharing) consumers are reacting in a similar way as if a friend shared a secret or talked behind our backs. While third party sharing of data is legal, the study showed that scenarios where companies obtain information outside the website one interacted with or deduced inferred information about someone from analytics elicits a negative reaction from consumers. The study also found when consumers believe their data has been shared unacceptably, purchase interest substantially declines (John, Kim, & Barasz, 2018). Some of the recommendations from the authors to mitigate backlash from consumers included staying away from sensitive subjects, maintain transparency and provide consumers choice/ the ability to opt out.
I reached out to Michael Becker, Managing Partner at Identity Praxis for his point of view on the subject. Michael is an entrepreneur, academic and industry evangelist who has been engaging and supporting the personal identity economy for over a decade. “People are becoming aware that their personal information has value and are awakening to the fact that its’ misuse is not just annoying, but can lead to material and lasting emotional, economic, and physical harm. They are awaking to the fact that they can enact control over their data. Consumers are starting to use password managers, identity anonymization tools, and tracker management tools [like Ghostery]; for instance, 38% of US adults have adopted ad blockers and this is just the beginning. Executives should take heed that a new class of software and services, personal information management solutions, are coming to the market. These solutions, alongside new regulations (like the EU GDPR), give individuals, at scale, the power to determine what information about them is shared, who has access to it, when it can be used, and on what terms. In other words, the core terms of business may change in the very near future from people having to agree to the businesses terms of service to business having to agree to the individuals’ terms of access.”
In the United States the approach to regulations for personal data collection and use is such that if the action from the business or technology isn’t expressly forbidden, then companies can do it regardless of whether it is ethical or not. Unfortunately, regulations do not necessarily keep up with the pace of innovation in the world of data collection. In Europe the approach to data privacy is such that unless a personal data collection practice and its use is explicitly called out as legal then companies CANNOT do it. There are some actions you can take to manage passive data collection; however, this list is not meant to be exhaustive:
Use Brave Browser: This browser allows you to block ads and trackers to sites that you visit. Brave claims it will increase download speeds, save you money on your mobile device data since you don’t have to load ads and protect your information.
Ghostery permits you to allow what trackers are accepted by site that you visit, or block trackers entirely.
Add a script blocker plug-in to your browser such as No-script. No-script has a white list of trustworthy websites and it enables you to choose which sites you want to allow scripts.
Review what permissions to track your data on your mobile device and limit it. Do you really want Apple sharing your contact list and calendar with other applications? Do all applications need access to your fitness and activity data? You can find helpful instructions on how for iPhone here or for Android here.
Regardless of what is legal or illegal, comfort levels with how our personal data is used varies by individual. When you think about it, there is similarity to the debate in the 60’s on what constituted obscenity. When we find use of our personal data offensive we will likely say “I’ll know it when I see it”.
Last night I received a text from my mom wondering if we should attend the Bruno Mars concert coming up in November. I bought tickets for her birthday this year and we have been excited about attending. What brought on this sudden second guessing? The news coverage of the mass shooting in Las Vegas of course! What happened in Vegas was truly horrible and many are now second guessing how safe it is to attend concerts and other events. While I scrolled through my news feed and perused Facebook, my friends wondered in their posts how such a horrific event could happen. As expected, proponents for tighter gun laws have been in the news which has started a lively debate in my Facebook feed. This post is not about my political views on gun laws, nor is it intended to downplay what has happened. My heart truly goes out to everyone affected. My aim is to bring to light some food for thought as we all absorb the events and news coverage.
The likeliness of being killed in a homicide by a firearm is relatively low compared to other potential causes of death. In 2014 there were 11,008 homicide deaths from a firearm in the U.S. This translates to 3.5 people out of 100,000 or a 0.0035% chance (CDC, 2017). However, firearm homicides are dwarfed in comparison to the top 10 causes of death in 2016 which are as follows:
Heart disease: 633,842
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 155,041
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 146,571
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 140,323
Alzheimer’s disease: 110,561
Influenza and pneumonia: 57,062
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 49,959
Looking at the numbers, we should all be more concerned about lifestyles and choices that directly contribute to heart disease and cancer. So why aren’t stories about the leading causes of death receiving the same amount of media coverage? Because media’s #1 job is to create audiences and anything sensational or out of the ordinary does the best job attracting attention (it is like trying to pass a car crash on the freeway and not look). However, creating audiences is much more hyper targeted than it used to be. News Media companies collect personally identifiable information on our viewing and reading habits through cookies, device IDs and set-top box data to name a few. This data collected is then utilized so they can sell their advertisers the best target audiences across their platforms. For example, Apple’s algorithms know I have recently been following hurricanes since I was in Florida right before Irma. On October 3rd in the “For You” section, there was an article from the Miami Herald about the tropical depression moving towards the Caribbean. Right below that article, an advertisement from Wells Fargo (my bank) was strategically placed. Wells Fargo has my personal information and so does Apple, so they can leverage an intermediary to anonymize and match my data between the companies while remaining privacy compliant. From there my anonymized information is leveraged enabling Wells Fargo to strategically target their advertisement in my Apple news feed. Because the targeting is more precise to the audience, Wells Fargo in theory sees a lift in their ROI and Apple commands higher advertising rates.
While media uses sensational headlines and stories to gain more of our attention, the bad news in the media affects our stress levels. A study on news coverage from the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings increased “acute stress” in students at other universities who followed the happenings in the news media. Furthermore, the more news media on the subject consumed the higher the probability the students would respond with higher degrees of stress symptomology (Fallahi & Lesik, 2009). Constant news negativity can exacerbate our own feelings of sadness and anxiety as well as the severity of how we perceive our own situation (Davey, 2012). A big dose of negative news daily can certainly send me into a spin of constant mobile device checking for updates and an overall pessimistic view that day.
Does this mean we should all turn off the news and not pay attention to what is going on in the world? Of course not, as the news media plays a positive role in society as well. We just all need to remember that News Media’s first priority is to create audiences and react accordingly.
Fallahi, C. R., & Lesik, S. A. (2009). The effects of vicarious exposure to the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 1(3), 220-230. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0015052
In the 1920s, women didn’t smoke. Or if they did, they were severely judged for it. It was taboo. Like graduating from college or getting elected to Congress, people believed women should leave the smoking to men. Honey, you might hurt yourself. Or burn your beautiful hair.
This posed a problem for the tobacco industry. Here you had 50% of the population not smoking their cigarettes for no other reason than it was unfashionable or seen as impolite. This wouldn’t do. As George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, said at the time, “It’s a gold mine right in our front yard.” The industry tried multiple times to market cigarettes to women but nothing ever seemed to work. The cultural prejudice against it was simply too ingrained, too deep.
Then, in 1928, the American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, a young hotshot marketer with wild ideas and even wilder marketing campaigns.
Bernays’ marketing tactics at the time were unlike anybody else’s in the industry. Back in the early 20th century, marketing was seen simply as a means of communicating the tangible, real benefits of a product in the simplest and most concise form possible. It was believed at the time that people bought based on facts and information. If someone wanted to buy cheese, then you must communicate to them the facts of why your cheese was superior (“Freshest french goat milk, cured 12 days, shipped refrigerated!”). People were seen as rational actors making rational purchasing decisions for themselves.
But Bernays was more unconventional. Bernays didn’t believe that people made rational decisions most of the time. In fact, he believed that people were fundamentally irrational and so you had to appeal to them on an emotional and unconscious level.
Whereas the tobacco industry had been focused on convincing individual women to buy and smoke cigarettes, Bernays saw it as an emotional and cultural issue. If Bernays wanted women to smoke, then he had to shift that balance and turn smoking into a positive emotional experience for women by reshaping the cultural perceptions of smoking.
To accomplish this, Bernays hired a group of women and got them into the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City. Today, big holiday parades are cheesy things you let drone on the television while you fall asleep on the couch. But back in those days, parades were big social events, kind of like the Super Bowl or something.
Bernays planned it so that these women in the parade, at the appropriate moment, would all stop and light up cigarettes at the same time. Then, Bernays hired photographers to take flattering photos of the women which he then passed out to all of the major national newspapers. Bernays then told the reporters that these ladies were not just lighting cigarettes, but they were lighting “torches of freedom,” demonstrating their ability to assert their own independence and be their own woman.
It was all fake, of course. But Bernays staged it as a political protest because he knew this would trigger the appropriate emotions in women all across the country. Feminists had just won women the right to vote a decade earlier. Women were now working outside the home and becoming more integral to the country’s economic life. They were asserting themselves by cutting their hair short and wearing racier clothes. Women at the time saw themselves as the first generation that could behave independently of a man. And many of them felt very strongly about this. If Bernays could just hitch his “smoking = freedom” message onto the women’s liberation movement, well, tobacco sales would double and he’d be a rich man.
And it worked. Women started smoking and got to enjoy lung cancer just as much as their husbands did.
Meanwhile, Bernays went on to pull off these kinds of cultural coups regularly throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He completely revolutionized the marketing industry and invented the field of public relations in the process. Paying celebrities to use your product? That was Bernays’ idea. Creating fake news articles that are actually subtle advertisements for a product? Also his idea. Staging controversial public events as a means to draw attention and notoriety for one of his clients? His idea as well. Pretty much every form of marketing or publicity we’re all subjected to today began with Bernays.
But here’s something else surprising about Bernays: he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew.
Freud’s theories were some of the first to argue that most human decision making was primarily unconscious and irrational. Freud was the one who realized that people’s insecurities drove them to excess and overcompensation. Freud was also the one who understood that people are, at heart, animals and are easily manipulated, especially in groups.
Bernays just applied these ideas to selling products and he got rich in the process.
Through Freud, Bernays understood something nobody else in business ever understood before him: that if you can tap into people’s insecurities — if you can needle at their deepest feelings of inadequacy — then they will buy just about any damn thing you tell them to.
This form of marketing became the blueprint of all future advertising. Trucks are marketed to men as ways to assert strength and reliability. Makeup is marketed to women as a way to be more loved and garner more attention. Beer is marketed as a way to have fun and be the center of attention at the party. I mean, my god, Burger King used to market hamburgers with, “Have it your way” — that doesn’t even make sense.
After all, how else does a women’s magazine that shows 150 pages of airbrushed pictures of women in the 0.01th percentile of the population in terms of beauty make money other than turning around and selling beauty products next to those exact same airbrushed women? Or beer commercials that show raucous parties with friends, girls, titties, sports cars, Vegas, friends, more girls, more titties, more beer, girls, girls, girls, parties, dancing, cars, friends, girls! — Drink Budweiser.
This is all Marketing 101 today. When I first studied marketing when I started my first business, I was told to find people’s “pain points” and then subtly make them feel worse. Then turn around and tell them my product will make them feel better. In my case, I was selling dating advice, so the idea was to tell people that they will be lonely forever, that no one will ever like them or love them, that something must be wrong with them — oh! And here, buy my book!
I didn’t do that, of course. It made me feel icky. And it took me years to really understand why.
In our culture today, marketing often is the message. The vast majority of information that we’re exposed to is some form of marketing. And so if the marketing is always trying to make you feel like shit to get you to buy something, then we’re essentially existing in a culture designed to make us feel like shit and we’ll always want to overcompensate in some way.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that of the thousands of people who haveemailed me for advice in one form or another, a large percentage of them didn’t actually seem to have any identifiable problem. Rather, they clung to bizarre and unrealistic standards for themselves. Like the college kid who goes to college expecting to go to insano pool parties with bikini-clad women on a daily basis and is then disappointed when he feels socially awkward because he has to go to class and study hard subjects and make new friends and constantly be unsure of himself because he’s never lived on his own before. The latter experience is totally normal, yet he somehow shipped himself off to university with expectations of Animal House every weekend.
This sort of thing is happening all over. I know for me, my conception of romance and a relationship when I was young was some cross between a random episode of Friends and a Hugh Grant movie. Needless to say, I spent many years feeling frustrated and as though something must be inherently wrong with me.
Bernays was aware of all of this, by the way. But Bernays’ political views were like a diet version of fascism — he believed that it was both inevitable and in everybody’s best interests that the weak be exploited by the strong through media and propaganda. He called it “the invisible government” and generally thought the masses were stupid and deserving of whatever smart people convinced them to do.
Our society has evolved to an interesting point in history. Capitalism, in theory, works by allotting resources to fulfill everyone’s needs and demands in the most efficient way possible.
But perhaps capitalism is only the most efficient means of fulfilling a population’s physical needs — needs for food, shelter, clothing, etc. Because in a capitalist system, it also becomes economical to feed into everyone’s insecurities, their vices and vulnerabilities, to promote their worst fears and constantly remind them of theirshortcomings and failures. It becomes profitable to set new and unrealistic standards, to generate a culture of comparison and inferiority. Because people who constantly feel inferior make the best customers.
After all, people only buy something if they believe it will solve a problem. Therefore, if you want to sell more stuff than there are problems, you have to encourage people to believe there are problems where there are none.
This isn’t an attack on capitalism. It’s not even an attack on marketing. I don’t think there’s some big overarching conspiracy to keep the “sheeple” in line. I think the system simply creates certain incentives that shapes media, and then the media go on to shape a callous and superficial culture based on trying to always live up to something.
Overall our system has done pretty damn well, and still does for the most part. I like to think of it as the “least worst” solution to organizing human civilization. Unbridled capitalism simply brings with it certain cultural baggage that we must learn to be aware of and adapt to. Oftentimes, the marketing in our economy pushes insecurity onto us that is not helpful and that intentionally triggers inadequacies or addictions within ourselves to make more profit.
Some may argue that this sort of stuff should be regulated and controlled by government. Maybe that can help a little bit. But it doesn’t strike me as a good long-term solution.
The only real long-term solution is for people to develop enough self-awareness to understand when mass media is prodding at their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and to make conscious decisions in the face of those fears. The success of our free markets has burdened us with the responsibility of exercising our freedom to choose. And that responsibility is far heavier than we often realize.
Researchers studying the psychology of consumer behavior have long struggled to identify the variables that comprise the proverbial black box of consumer decision making and advertising influence (Advertising Research Foundation, 1964; Baumgartner, 2002; Bearden, Netemeyer & Teel, 1989). Furthermore, personality researchers too, have endeavored to determine the many specific aspects of behavior that are influenced by the differing personality variables (Bosnjak, et al., 2007).
Practically speaking, the fundamental purpose of advertising is to unequivocally generate a response that advances sales and thus ultimately improves profits. Clearly businesses would not spend billions of limited corporate resources on an endeavor that would not at least attempt to significantly contribute to profitability.
Advertising is everywhere in the modern environment – on radio, television and computers, in magazines and newspapers, on billboards, on buildings, on public transportation, on the clothing, shoes and accessories of sports and entertainment figures and strategically placed in films, television shows and websites. Far from being a passive mirror of society and reflection of already established consumer needs, advertising exerts influence that is cumulative, often subtle and at least partially unconscious. If the average American is inundated with over 3000 ads per day (Du Plessis, 2008; Kilbourne, 1999; Vollmer & Precourt, 2008), which are theorized to influence and manipulate his/her behavior, then a thorough understanding of this powerful persuader is undoubtedly in the best interest of behavioral researchers, clinical practitioners and certainly the individuals themselves.
Understanding individual differences in response to external stimuli would contribute to a better understanding of both these differences and how the process of influence and persuasion work in our daily lives. More fully understanding how particular types of messages carry more or less influence with differing personalities could be useful in shaping more effective assessment measures and subsequent approaches to therapy and counseling that take personality into consideration, similar to the way in which one adjusts teaching styles and modes with regard to individual learning styles.
Advertising Research Foundation. (1964). Are there consumer types? New York, NY:
ARF.Baumgartner, H. (2002). Toward a personology of the consumer. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 286-293. doi:10.1086/341578
Bearden, W. O., Netemeyer, R. G., & Teel, J. E. (1989). Measurement of consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(4), 473-481. doi:10.1086/209186
Bosnjak, M., Bratko, D., Galesic, M., & Tuten, T. (2007). Consumer personality and individual differences: Revitalizing a temporarily abandoned field. Journal of Business Research, 60(6), 587-589. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2006.12.002
Du Plessis, E. (2008). The advertised mind: Ground-breaking insights into how our brains respond to advertising. Sterling, VA: Millward Brown.
Kilbourne, J. (1999). Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising. Boston, MA: Free Press.
The American department store chain J.C. Penney is bringing back its’ mail order catalogue to increase its customer engagement (Reuters, 2014). My first thought was that mail order catalogues seem so quaint these days.
My second one was: it’s smart to bring it back. Without it, a swipe of customers would be lost, because for them the purchase is just one step in a much longer process preceding and following that transaction for which having an actual, physical, mail order book is indispensable, a process far more important than the product one ends up buying.
“Psychology has been at the heart of advertising since its invention, although, academically, advertising and psychology have long since gone their separate ways. For advertisers, the ability to manipulate consumer impressions and decision making has been the key to success. If product sales increase following a carefully orchestrated campaign, the persuasive tactics have evidently worked, although as with any natural experiment it is hard to establish cause and effect due to the lack of control over confounding variables” (Giles, p. 106).
Giles, D., 2003. Media Psychology. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
“Public relations is … a communicative process designed to enhance the relationship between the organization and the public and, as such, is a branch of propaganda…. Propaganda is here defined as a deliberate attempt to persuade people, by any available media, to think and then behave in a manner desired by the source, it is really a means to an end” (Taylor, 2003, pp. 6-7).
Taylor, P. M. (2003). Munitions of the Mind. Manchester: Manchester University Press.