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When fiction masquerades as fact

The Cambridge Analytica scandal left ethical questions for all marketers and business leaders to ponder.


When I first started out in advertising back in the Stone Age (the 1980s), I remember having to deal with clients who wanted me to guarantee that my little 30-second TVC, radio spot or print ad would infallibly convince anyone who watched it to buy their product. My stock answer was to say that I never gave guarantees. I couldn’t even guarantee that my kids would grow up to be worthwhile human beings, I’d tell them, but I was still in there pitching. I’d finish up by saying that there was no foolproof method of getting people to part with their money against their will and, if anyone ever came up with such a thing, it would soon be illegal to use it. My, how times have changed!

If the fuss about data crunching, opinion manipulating organisations like Cambridge Analytica is correct, it seems someone has come up with such a method and it is not – as yet – illegal. The company itself is now defunct but no doubt others will use their techniques to undermine political candidates or influence purchase decisions (a vote is a purchase decision) in ways we previously thought impossible. Given the grilling of Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg by the US Senate committee looking into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, such opportunists had better move fast. As lawmakers gather in the wake of the scandal it looks likely that my decades-old prediction that such sophisticated manipulation would get banned may be vindicated. However, wherever there is demand, there is supply, so illegal or not, I suspect such techniques – now tried and tested – may prove too tempting for some.

And you can understand that temptation. Along comes a whizz bang organisation incorporating the name of a world-famous university (no actual connection, of course, just the same name), offering you the opportunity to understand what motivates consumers in ways marketers have previously only dreamt about. And I have heard at least one well known Australian business leader admit they were approached by Cambridge Analytica about a project. Sensibly they declined the approach (anything associated with Breitbart founder and ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon smells pretty stinky). I’ll bet they are deeply relieved they did now.

And therein lies the trick. If something looks too good to be true, we used to say it probably was. Now, given the apparently limitless abilities of technology, it may be true but it is probably a very bad idea.

Anything that can manipulate people without their knowledge, anything that masquerades as editorial, or a comment with no hidden agenda but which is actually a commercial message that has been bought and paid for is unethical. Anything that presents lies as facts, that sets out to distort and undermine without clearly identifying its source and agenda, anything that calls itself news, but is, in fact, propaganda, is unethical. If you write an opinion piece (I write them all the time, see this column) that is fine, as long as it is presented as such.

There is nothing new about people flying very close to the wire pretending advertising is editorial. I once complained to the Press Council about a regular insert in a major newspaper that called itself “a special supplement”. It was clearly an advertising supplement and, I believe, should have been labelled that way. Advertising supplements are a revenue earner for media publications, and that’s fine, as long as they are clearly identified. The publication writes editorial about a particular sector or industry (travel, real estate, private schools) in return for members of that industry taking paid ads in the supplement. As you can imagine, the editorial is rarely critical and the more an advertiser pays, the more mentions they get. No problem, but a “special” supplement it wasn’t. Sadly, my complaint was not upheld.

I have always argued that advertising is the most honest of the dishonest professions because you all know we’re trying to sell you something. Or you used to know. I am not so sure now and I am glad that I am no longer in the industry because the lines have become so blurred. Indeed, I am so paranoid about this that I refuse to boost my posts on my public Facebook page (oh, OK, I am too stingy, as well), because I don’t think they are ads.

I have been asked to use my social media following to promote services occasionally (reminding older women to get a mammogram and younger women to look to their superannuation so far) and I’ve been paid to do so, but I have been punctilious about making that clear when I send a tweet or write a Facebook post about them.

For me, the line is clear. It’s fine to sell so long as you are upfront about it and – this is crucial – do not set out to gain an added advantage by deceiving. The minute you hide something – who is paying you, that anyone is paying you, or that what you are publishing is false – then you are being unethical.

It’s fine to research your audience. It is important to understand them and learn how they see the world. If your work, skill and insights help you to attract their attention to your message, I have no problem. But the minute you hide your commercial agenda or conceal your ulterior motive, not only is it wrong but one day – and this is the only guarantee I’ll give you – it’ll come back and bite you on the bum, hard.

Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy.

She worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and is now an author, journalist, lecturer and media commentator.

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