THE POWER TO DO EVIL
Updated: Jan 31, 2018
Some very bad international actors seem to have used some very powerful advertising techniques – targeted ads and a robust content campaign – to affect our most holy of American rites, a free election. Some people may look at the use of those techniques and blame advertisING the discipline rather than the advertisERS, who IMO abused the public trust. This is my plea for caution from all.
The social networks, where much of the deception took place, have finally responded to the breach. Twitter is denying ad space to RT and Sputnik, the Russian propaganda peddlers who played the lead role in the ruse, http://bit.ly/2hbGhwI. And Facebook is hiring 1,000 humans to assess whether ads placed there are legit, hurtful or otherwise nefarious.
And then there’s that content-campaign-on-steroids that intelligence agencies say promoted falsehoods to millions of voters. The New York Times has shown how Russian players created phony Facebook accounts and launched vicious fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and others, http://nyti.ms/2xT2SnL.
All of these evil efforts rely on many of the same tools we advertisers use to win consumers: research on where, when and how a particular target behaves; insights on what they think and how they’ll react to certain stimuli; and a galvanizing idea intended to leverage all of that learning to elicit a response that makes the story bigger. The Russian’s fake news campaign on Facebook is the gold-standard case study for effective content marketing. Well, except for the fact that it was based on lies.
Think of it. The most powerful nation in the history of human civilization now has a leader who may have been put there with significant influence from a deceptive marketing campaign.
Behold the awesome power of advertising.
So I wave a flag of caution for those who digest advertising every day and for those who are in the business of making it.
For the experiencers of advertising, please do not conflate the idea that because evil-doers have relied on similar processes as those in the ad biz that all advertisers are likewise doing evil. Those same processes employed by the bad guys also help decent advertisers find people who will be interested in the products we promote, and helps us understand what they want from those products. Based on this info we hone our message – and, yes, our message must be truthful, provable and relevant.
We’ve come a long way from “It’s been medically verified, there are no adverse health effects from smoking Chesterfields for more than 10 years.”
This ad may be our industry legacy, but we need to make sure it remains ancient history. Any advertiser who wraps falsehoods inside of half-truths must be shamed and shunned by consumers, retailers, the media, and by other marketers.
Hooray for the open mic provided by the World Wide Web. Use it!
And for the creators of advertising: The idea that deceptive marketing can affect geo-political history should put ice in your veins. This is not what you or I signed up for.
This campaign has soiled our profession because it used our best practices in the effort to bullshit people. We cannot allow this, not only because bullshitting is wrong, but because consumers will now be even more skeptical of our industry and our work. We owe it to ourselves and our audience to decry ad bullshit where ever it happens. Marketers: tell the fucking truth.
Oh, and maybe don’t stay on the sideline as this story unfolds. Be active, advocate, vote.
The underpinnings of advertising can be complex, but its basics are simple. We let appropriate people know about the best aspects of our clients’ products and services. When lies are mixed up in that equation, that’s when we all need to start looking for other work.
Please watch one of my favorite TEDtalks, by Ethan Decker, on the inherent nature of advertising throughout animal history. Some advertisers do evil. But the concept of advertising is as natural as, well, a peacock’s plume.