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How deep to creep – ethical advertising in the era of personalisation

22nd August 2017

Every time we hit ‘like’, browse the news, update our profiles and purchase from sites like Amazon Prime, we pepper the internet with all kinds of digital DNA.

Through online tracking, organisations can follow individual behaviour online. This, coupled with data relating to the individual’s demographic and behavioural science insights, can create very unique and accurate profiles which allow said organisation to tailor highly specific adverts or messaging directly – here, Don Draper meets Sigmund Freud.

With targeted campaigning fast emerging as the most direct way to engage and speak with voters it is no wonder that both Labour and Conservative campaigns allegedly set aside £1m each during the elections for Facebook advertising alone and that data analysis played a large part during, and most contentiously after, Brexit.

The Vote Leave campaign claimed to spend the last of its budget, in the last ten days, on targeted advertising. It capitalised on the fears of fence sitters and emphasised the ‘Taking Back Control’ slogan in its messaging. Using mass polling, focus groups and data gathered from social media, Vote Leave targeted over seven million people with over one and a half billion digital ads.

The sheer volume of ads make this messaging difficult to monitor for political and internet watchdogs. Where previously political advertising campaigns were vetted on their comparatively few print, billboard and broadcast advertisements, the digital campaign has made the process far from straightforward.

The potential for misuse of data has recently brought this level of personalisation sharply into focus questioning how deep companies or parties should creep to engage their target audiences.

Following the general election, the Information Commissioner’s office launched a major investigation into how political parties use voter data, specifically during the Brexit referendum and May’s election.

Elizabeth Denham, heading the investigation, stated: “If political campaigns or third-party companies are able to gather up very precise digital trails to then individually target people, that is an area [where] they are going to be outside the law”.

Further to this, Denham’s office has contacted specific data companies including Cambridge Analytica which has been cited as “supercharging” the Leave.EU campaign. Cambridge Analytica, run by Robert Mercer, US billionaire, Trump’s top donor and ally of Steve Bannon, is also credited for serving an influential role in Trump’s campaign win.

However, the more specific advertising is, the murkier the water gets. As a consumer, voter, internet user, it is hard to know where we are leaving data and how it will be used by third parties. And whether we are actually ok with this, is not often within our immediate control.

On a consumer level, one horrifying example of data targeting too far emerges from the US. Target, a giant discount retailer, uses data from its customer database to identify pregnant customers based on their buying habits. So much so, they can even work out what trimester their customers are in based on products purchased.

Creepy, yes. However, the data analysis was so accurate, it actually broke the news of a teenage girl’s pregnancy before her father even knew.

Knowing your audience is an unchanging pillar of PR and personalised advertising presents a way to communicate directly to these audiences, with messaging specific to them.

But how, and with what data, we use to target is in ethical purgatory. Has this kind of advertising already gone too far or is personalisation poised to be the only way to truly engage and convert?

Grayling Team

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