The political risks of perfection in ad targeting
When I go on Facebook, I don't see many ads for garden equipment, power tools or even big TVs and sound systems. But comfortable work clothes for a woman of a certain age? Low-heeled pumps with arch support? Expensive skin creams that turn back the clock? How did these companies find me?
The answer, of course, is simple. They asked. I fit their customer base. They got me just right, delivered the right message down to the right price points. This is what some of the smartest young engineers in the world are doing.
Decades ago, then-Harvard President Derek Bok, a former dean of the Harvard Law School, lamented that so many of the smartest young college graduates were choosing to devote themselves to the relatively useless pursuit of a law degree.
A few years ago, I asked my son, a world-class computer geek, what most of his friends were doing for summer jobs. When he said advertising, I thought he was kidding. A generation of guys drinking scotch and loosening their neckties? And Derek didn't think much of lawyers. What would he say about advertising? It might as well be "plastics" (remember "The Graduate"?).
Of course, the supergeek nerds, the least sociable kids on campus, were not heading to Madison Ave. They were figuring out how to do the most sophisticated targeting, using massive amounts of data to identify the most likely customers for companies that advertise on the platform. Facebook doesn't exist to connect me with my college pals, although it does that quite well, but to connect me to the new skin care line; or to Jenni Kayne, who all my friends "like"; or to various liberal and women's causes.
Targeting is nothing new, either in advertising or in politics. Watch the ads on daytime TV: They are not aimed at working men. Watch the ads on the local news: Political ads run adjacent to low-cal news because people who watch the news tend to vote. In most campaigns, you target your message to your audience, meaning that you run pro-Israel ads in Miami, not Jacksonville, Flori-da; companies specialize in preparing radio and TV ads targeted to African American and Latino voters.
But it's all pretty inefficient, or it used to be. There are Cubans in Miami and Jews in Jackson-Ville, and not all Jews consider Israel the defining issue in picking a candidate. The best we could do was far from perfect and subject to criticism from those who resented a message that was transparently targeted to their neighbors.
But what if you could do it perfectly?
What if you could give me the name and email address of every pro-choice college-educated Re-publican woman who had ever donated to Planned Parenthood in a swing state like Ohio?
Or, how about every gun-owning Democratic white man who makes less money than his wife and opposes all new taxes?
What was once done in the most gross way can now be done with greater precision than anyone is quite ready to recognize. There is the issue of whether the Mark Zuckerbergs should censor the handful of ads so obviously untrue as to meet any standard of falsity. But that pales by comparison to the question of how far they can and should go to assist campaigns in targeting their messages to specific and defined audiences.
There is an apocryphal story in advertising about the failure of a campaign targeted to newly pregnant women. The campaign should have worked: They had their audience right, and the right products. And that was the problem. Many of these women had yet to even tell family members their news, and yet a major retail outlet knew. It made them uncomfortable. So they added some garden tools and lawn equipment to the ad packages, and sales of prenatal vitamins and maternity jeans skyrocketed.
The Russians in 2016 targeted minority voters with horror stories about the obstacles they would face if they were to try to vote. The question is not how far the Russians will go this time; they'll go as far as they can, which may be equally true of various groups supporting the candidates. It is whether American companies are willing to play ball with them and, in doing so, further divide us.
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