“Psychographic microtargeting” sounds like a phrase straight from the mouth of Big Brother. But is this advertising tactic really the dystopian big, bad wolf that many are making it out to be?
Facebook is currently running damage control to contain the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that’s prompted rage at the company and calls for users to delete their Facebook accounts. The valid criticisms that citizens of the internet are levying at Facebook largely regard the mishandling of its users’ data.
But there’s also a sense of outrage percolating that goes beyond breach of privacy and trust between Facebook and its users. The reports about Cambridge Analytica’s close ties to Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign suggest that, because the Trump team targeted and constructed its ads according to unethically received data, the ads themselves gave Trump an unfair advantage. In other words, these “microtargeted ads” were a way — a nefarious and illegitimate way — that Trump won the presidency.
The extent to which political ads translate to real-world behavior — even extremely well targeted ones — is still up for debate.
Underlying that suggestion is an assumption about the power of ads to affect our behavior. When, in reality, the extent to which political ads translate to real-world behavior — even extremely well targeted ones — is still up for debate.
According to Facebook, its advertising products do track conversion to real-world purchasing action. Facebook is confident that ads targeted towards people with relevant interests provide a better experience for both Facebook users and the businesses purchasing the ads. But that online-to-offline measurement functionality works primarily for retail, not politics. (Tellingly, The Intercept found that in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook removed the “politics” category from its advertising promotional “Success Stories” page.)
Facebook has provided other proof, however, that it can be a powerful tool in motivating action in politics.
For almost a decade, Facebook and partner researchers have been measuring how Facebook has the ability to impact political behavior. A 2010 study of over 61 million Facebook users found that an election-day Facebook message caused 340,000 extra people to vote. During the 2012 election, Facebook boosted articles about politics on election day, over the normally prominent friend updates.
According to Mother Jones, Facebook claimed that just reorganizing the News Feed to put politics top-of-mind on election day boosted voter turnout by 3 percent. And in 2016, nine secretaries of state attributed higher voter registration to a Facebook campaign featuring a registration reminder. When it comes to politics, studies like these show that Facebook can be a powerful tool to translate messaging into action.
These messages, however, weren’t advertisements, and they weren’t in support of any particular political candidate or view. Also, the study is ongoing within academia as to whether microtargeted advertising influences political action, and to what extent.
Ads influencing behavior? Pshaw!
“There’s actually a good amount of scholarly debate on whether or not traditional political ads (by which we often mean televised commercials) are effective at changing minds, or convincing people to turn out to vote in the first place,” Matthew Motta, PhD Candidate in American Politics at the University of Minnesota and co-author of research on the efficacy of political advertising, told Mashable. “More personalized advertising doesn’t necessarily mean that the ads will be more effective. This is a point of debate in the scholarly literature.”
A 2017 study found that advertising in general elections has an average effect of zero in swaying political opinions. Motta also points to two conflicting studies about microtargeted ads specifically: one that indicates that people prefer personalized and targeted ads, and another that shows that targeted political ads can actually backfire on candidates, causing potential voters to turn against them. Still another study found that 64 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if they learned the campaign was using personal data to advertise to them.
Political science professor Travis Ridout, the author of “The Campaign Power of Political Advertising,” shares some of these studies’ skepticism about microtargeting, but puts more stock in political advertising in general. He says general political ads can have a 2 or 3 percent change on general elections. Advertising can be even more effective at motivating action and changing minds in local or less well-publicized races — and that 2 or 3 percent is pretty significant in this age of close races.
But Ridout does not see microtargeted advertising as all that different from traditional ads.
“What evidence do we have out there that microtargetting is highly persuasive? There isn’t much,” Ridout said. “We can know which magazines you subscribe to, and which type of car you drive, and all of that information, and you can do the fancy stats on that. And it really isn’t going to gain you much more than knowing if the person is registered as a republican or a democrat.”
The microtargeting movement
But there’s also evidence that using psychographic profiles to microtarget political messaging could be a sea change for candidates and issues. Rob Smith, a professor of marketing at the Ohio State University Fisher School of Business, and co-author of a study on how microtargeted advertising affects people’s behavior and sense of self, views tactics like those employed by Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign as highly successful in motivating real-world action.
“Segmenting, targeting, and positioning are key to successful marketing, and microtargeting provides marketers with incredible advancements for each of these steps,” Smith said. “If a political party can focus their marketing budget on undecided voters, or specifically to an undecided voter that may be leaning a certain direction but not planning to vote, that is clearly a lucrative segment to target.”
Microtargeted ads can also impact — not just play off of — the psychology of the voter.
Smith sees the psychological element of identifying people who are open to receiving these messages as key for the ads’ success. To underscore the role psychology — not just purchasing history — can play in political advertising, Smith points to a study that aimed to convince both liberals and conservatives to recycle. Using a psychological understanding of what motivates liberals and conservatives, Smith said the study found that “messages that are congruent with their political ideology are more effective at influencing them.”
Microtargeted ads can also impact — not just play off of — the psychology of the voter. According to Smith’s own research, when an ad communicates that you’re seeing it because of who you are, you are more susceptible to both the ad and what it’s saying about your identity. It’s easy to see how this can help align potential voters with candidates and the groups they purport to represent.
Professor Motta sees a similar upside for campaigns that use psychological profiling to translate into real-world voting behavior, based on studies on voter turnout. These studies show that tailoring messages and tactics to personality traits such as openness or neuroticism increased voter turnout — which is the way Cambridge Analytica advised the Trump campaign.
“We know from research in social and political psychology that people with certain psychological profiles tend to be more ‘persuadable’ than others,” Motta said. “Figuring out which voters are the most persuadable allows campaigns to target these groups with their messages, and perhaps even create personalized messages for people with different personality traits.”
The microtargeting fear
In other words, microtargeted ads give political marketers a more sophisticated toolbox. And Facebook itself has shown that it can effectively cause citizens to vote or take other political action through simple newsfeed messages and manipulations. But when it comes to definitive studies on whether microtargeted ads can actually translate to real world action in voting and political allegiance, the jury is still out.
Still, there is something unsettling about the prospect of microtargeted psychographic advertising, when it’s applied to politics. When we’re deciding who we want to be our next leaders, or where we stand on important issues, we want to feel like we’ve made our own decisions, given the best and most fair information out there. Receiving information in the form of an ad, specifically one that plays on our vulnerabilities, would appear to make the playing field less than level.
“In our data, we see a pretty polarized response to this kind of marketing,” Smith said. “Many people are totally fine with it and actually prefer it. Many people despise it. People who don’t want to be persuaded should be worried about it because marketing is often about persuasion, and microtargeting makes it more effective.”
“I don’t want to think that I was manipulated into casting my vote a particular way, or that my neighbors were manipulated, or that the country was manipulated into voting for someone who wasn’t in their best interest,” Professor Ridout said. “There’s a fine line between persuasion and manipulation.”