In defending targeting, I am not defending Facebook, I am attacking mass media and what its business model has done to democracy — including on Facebook.
With targeting, a small business, a new candidate, a nascent movement can efficiently and inexpensively reach people who would be interested in their messages so they may transact or assemble and act. Targeted advertising delivers greater relevance at lower cost and democratizes advertising for those who could not previously afford it, whether that is to sell homemade jam or organize a march for equality.* Targeting has been the holy grail all media and all advertisers have sought since I’ve been in the business. But mass media could never accomplish it, offering only crude approximations like “zoned” newspaper and magazine editions in my day or cringeworthy buys for impotence ads on the evening news now. The internet, of course, changed that.
Without targeting, we are left with mass media — at the extreme, Super Bowl commercials — and the people who can afford them: billionaires and those loved by them. Without targeting, big money will forever be in charge of commerce and politics. Targeting is an antidote.
With the mass-media business model, the same message is delivered to all without regard for relevance. The clutter that results means every ad screams, cajoles, and fibs for attention and every media business cries for the opportunity to grab attention for its advertisers, and we are led inevitably to cats and Kardashians. That is the attention-advertising market mass media created and it is the business model the internet apes so long as it values, measures, and charges for attention alone.
Facebook and the scareword “microtargeting” are blamed for Trump. But listen to Andrew Bosworth, who knows whereof he speaks, as he managed advertising on Facebook during the 2016 election. In a private post made public, he said:
So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period….
They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person.
I disagree with him about Facebook deserving full blame or credit for electing Trump; that’s a bit of corporate hubris on the part of him and Facebook, touting the power of what they sell. But he makes an important point: Trump’s people made better use of the tools than their competitors, who had access to the same tools and the same help with them.
But they’re just tools. Bad guys and pornographers tend to be the first to exploit new tools and opportunities because they are smart and devious and cheap. Trump used it to sell the ultimate elixir: anger. Cambridge Analytica acted as if it were brilliant at using these tools, but as Bosworth also says in the post — and as every single campaign data expert I know has said — CA was pure bullshit and did not sway so much as a dandelion in the wind in 2016. Says Bosworth: “This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and in many cases performed worse).” But the involvement of evil CA and its evil backers and clients fed the media narrative of moral panic about the corruption and damnation of microtargeting.
Hillary Clinton &co. could have used the same tools well and at the time — and still — I have lamented that they did not. They relied on traditional presumptions about campaigning and media and the culture in a changed world. Richard Nixon was the first to make smart use of direct mail — targeting! — and then everyone learned how to. Trump &co. used targeting well and in this election I as sure as hell hope his many opponents have learned the lesson.
Unless, that is, well-meaning crusaders take that tool away by demonizing and even banning micro — call it effective — targeting. I have sat in too many rooms with too many of these folks who think that there is a single devil and that a single messiah can rescue us all. I call this moral panic because it fits Ashley Crossman’s excellent definition of it:
A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.
The corollary is moral messianism: that outlawing this one thing will solve it all. I’ve heard lots of people proclaiming that microtargeting and targeting — as well as the data that powers it — should be banned. (“Data” has also become a scare word, which scares me, for data are information.) We’ve also seen media — in cahoots with similarly threatened legacy politicians — gang up on Facebook and Google for their power to target because media have been too damned stubborn and stupid, lo these two decades, to finally learn how to use the net to respect and serve people as individuals, not a mass, and learn information about people to deliver greater relevance and value for both users and advertisers. I wrote a book arguing for this strategy and tried to convince every media executive I know to compete with the platforms by building their own focused products to gather their own first-party data to offer advertisers their own efficient and effective value and to collaborate as an industry to do this. Instead, the industry prefers to whine. Mass media must mass.
Over the years, every time I’ve said that the net could enable a positive, I’ve been accused of technological determinism. Funny thing is, it’s the dystopians who are the determinists for they believe that a technology corrupts people. It is patronizing, paternalistic, and insulting to the public and robs them of agency to believe they can be transformed from decent, civilized human beings into raging lunatics and idiots by exposure to a Facebook ad. If we believe that and believe our problems are so easily fixed then we miss the real problems this country has: its long-standing racism; media’s exploitation and fueling of conflict and fear; and growing anti-intellectualism and hostility to education.
We also need to fix advertising — in mass media and on the internet in the platforms, especially on Facebook. Advertising needs to shift from mass-media measures of audience and attention and clicks to value-based measures of relevance and utility and efficacy — which will only occur with, yes, targeting. It also must become transparent, making clear who is advertising to us (Facebook may confirm the identity of an advertiser but that confirmed information is not shared with us) and on what basis we are being targeted (Facebook reveals only rough demographics, not targeting goals) and giving us the power to have some control over what we are shown. Instead of banning political advertising, I wish Twitter would also have endeavored to fix how advertising works.
I hear the more extreme moral messianists say their cure is to ban advertising. That’s not only naive, it’s dangerous, for without advertising journalists will starve and we will return to the age of the Medicis and their avissi: private information for the privileged few who can afford it. Paywalls are no paradise.
What’s really happening here — and this is a post and a book for another day — is a reflexive desire to control speech. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the spread of printing in early-modern Europe and I am struck by how every attempt to control the press and outlaw forms of speech failed and backfired. At some point, we must have faith in our fellow citizens and shift our attention from playing Whac-a-Mole with the bad guys to instead finding, sharing, and supporting expertise, education, authority, intelligence, and quality so we can have a healthy, deliberative democracy in a marketplace of ideas. The alternatives are all worse.
* I leave you with a few ads I found in Facebook’s library that could work only via targeting and never on expensive mass media: the newspaper, TV, or radio. I searched on “march.”
When you eliminate targeting, you risk silencing these movements.
Opening photo credit and link: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/wagakkh5