Big Data and Creativity

My cat is a purebred Birman, a fluffy fur-shedding machine created to have the temperament and self-preservation instincts of a soft toy. A year ago he ate an unknown substance that gave him acute pancreatitis. After several vet visits, a large bill, and an absolute refusal to switch to a fresh meat diet to save his own life, he was prescribed one of those depressing hypoallergenic soy-based vet diets. Yes, a sad fate for a creature that’s meant to be a hypercarnivore, whose distant ancestors were presumably gigantic and saber-toothed. These overpriced bags are only available online from a couple of venues. I order a couple of bags, cursing my cat all the while. Deciding to read something funny online to feel better about how the cat had effectively doubled his expenses for the near future, I notice that all the banner ads I see are from the petfood site. Which I just left. After already buying stuff.

This is Why People Have Ad-blockers

It hasn’t been a good year for Big Data. Programmatic may still be the biggest thing in digital, but the series of scandals this year isn’t a good look. Mark Zuckerberg had to face the admittedly ineffective US Congress over Facebook’s data practices, after it was alleged that Russia had purchased ads extensively on its platform to target varying American voters, spreading misinformation and possibly contributing to the election of Donald Trump. Zuckerberg’s response went from denial to acceptance of reality to a statement that Facebook is now in an ‘arms race’ with Russia. During the Senate hearing, Zuckerberg said:

  • “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm”
  • “In retrospect it was clearly a mistake” to believe Cambridge Analytica deleted data, without further examination
  • He does not “feel like” Facebook has a monopoly
  • That there would always be a free version of Facebook, leaving open the possibility of a paid, ad-free version of the social network
  • Dealing with hate speech automatically has “a higher error rate than I am happy with”
  • He was personally concerned about the possibility of political bias at the company

The privacy scandals have only continued. Tutorials about how to go incognito online, or erase your browsing footprint for advertisers, or quit Facebook altogether are now ubiquitous. We have to admit, we don’t blame people. Some of the articles that come up are downright 1984-esque. Like the apps that listen in through your smartphone’s mic to track TV viewing:

There may be a reason why that ol’ “Facebook is listening to you talk” conspiracy theory refuses to die – and not just because Facebook’s ad technology has gotten so good, it’s downright creepy. As it turns out, some apps are actually listening. Well, kind of! According to a recent report from The NYT, a number of apps using software from a company called Alphonso use the smartphone’s microphone to listen for audio signals in TV ads and programs, then sometimes even connect that data with places you visit or the movies you go see.

The NYT’s report found that over 250 games using Alphonso software were available in Google Play, and some were also found in Apple’s App Store. Some of the apps were games and others were aimed at children.

Oops. Maybe the memes were right. Not so much that there’s a dedicated FBI agent staring out at you through your webcam–we doubt the FBI has the budget for that–but the surveillance stage is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) commercial. Thanks to big data, companies like Facebook and Google already know more about you than your mother ever did. And if that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. After all, misuse of programmatic tools is one of the reasons why we’re currently in the darkest timeline.

ICU Facebook

If you’ve been taking public transport around Melbourne you’ve probably seen one of Facebook’s attempts at a public mea culpa: their global “Here Together” campaign:

An 8-week campaign, it’s part of Facebook’s attempt to patch a PR disaster. Considering 310,000 Aussies possibly had their data improperly shared by Facebook during the Cambridge Analytica stoush, we’re not sure how effective a snazzy multiple touchpoint campaign is going to be:

“This campaign has been in the works since the beginning of the year and builds on Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post acknowledging that Facebook users want to spend time interacting with their families and communities. We also want to take broader responsibility for the issues Facebook has had this year,” [Facebook A/NZ head of marketing, Alexandra] Sloane told CMO.

“We spoke to Australians, we used a research partner to obtain consumer insights, and undertook both qualitative and quantitative research focus groups. We wanted to hear what the Australian community expected from us, and we wanted to show them that we understand their concerns and demonstrate action around those topics.

“This is a global campaign, but the message has been adapted for Australian audiences. We’ve also launched an Australian resource/landing page with information.

“It’s an eight-week campaign with broad consumer reach and educates Australian users about the platform so they can understand what changes we have been making. We are taking action around fake accounts, data misuse and fake news.”

Facebook doesn’t actually apologise for the Cambridge Analytica incident, and even sort-of portrays itself as the victim in the campaign despite having made $40 billion in ad revenue last year off the personal data it has on people. While the defensiveness isn’t new–check Zuckerberg’s original knee-jerk response to the crisis where he disavowed any responsibility–the campaign’s tone-deaf by any measure. Yes, Facebook still probably knows what you like to eat for breakfast. Yeah, it’s promising to do better… on something or other. Some days it’s tempting to run away from it all and live in the forest, like the Wilderpeople. Not that that ended well for Sam Neill or Julian Dennison.

Want to see something scary? Check this out. Google and Facebook definitely know way more about you than you think.

So What Next?

Things you can do as a consumer if this article has freaked you out:

  • Go incognito. Everywhere. VPNs. Burner email accounts. Multiple passwords. Use browsers like TOR. Imagine yourself as a spy living in a hostile city-state that’s out to get you. Tinfoil hat all the way. Use burner phones. Run away and live off the grid.
  • Too over the top? There’s some basic things you can do: try and opt out of data collection on Google, on Chrome, and on your phone, among other things. A brief (lol) Google search will serve you well there.
  • Stay aware. Find out which apps track you–whether through a mic or anything else–and decide whether you need the apps in your life.
  • Routinely check your social media account settings and trim out the apps/sites you’ve given access to.
  • Routinely check the cookies you’ve allowed and delete those you don’t recognise. Alternatively, use extensions that clear out your browsing history/cookies/data on closing your browser.

Things advertisers need to be conscious of:

  • Build trust in consumers through the quality and content of digital offerings. No scams, nothing dishonest.
  • Don’t get creepy when designing creative.
  • Don’t get creepy in programmatic/retargeting strategy. If the customer’s getting too targeted, to the point that they start to feel that an ad is following them around wherever they go, they might develop a negative opinion of the brand.
  • Don’t buy other people’s personal data…
  • If collecting personal data via a survey/opt-in/account creation, be respectful of the data. Someone out there opted to trust you with their personal information. Treat that trust with respect instead of exploiting it.
  • Yes, there should be a strategy. Don’t have one? Give us a call, we’re always happy to talk strategy.
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