As the campaign season is in full swing, you may be seeing more of those wonderfully annoying political advertisements showing up on social media pages and other sites. It seems like common sense at this point that, to some degree or another, the majority of Americans would like to keep the government from spying
on us, but the private companies that manage political campaigns find themselves in the same boat. The difference is that far from just watching, those private companies are putting out those targeted advertisements and, according to a University Of Pennsyvania study, people absolutely despise those ads
(pdf). Some highlights from the study:
86% of Americans say they do not want "political advertising tailored to your interests." Somewhat smaller majorities also said they don't want ads for products and services (61%) or news (56%) tailored to their interests.
85% agreed "If I found out that Facebook was sending me ads for political candidates based on my profile information that I had set to private, I would be angry.”
More than 3/4 said they wouldn't return to a website if they knew if was sharing information about them with political advertisers.
70% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they found out that their campaign was using Facebook to send ads to friends of that person saying they "like" that candidate's Facebook page.
And two-thirds said their likelihood of voting for a candidate would decrease if they found out they were tailoring messages to them and their neighbors by purchasing information about their online activities, and then sending them different messages based on what might appeal to each.
In case you missed it, the recurring theme in most of those results is some flavor of the phrase "if they found out," which makes me thankful that most people are ignorant of how much of the above is already occurring
on the websites people are visiting every day, otherwise nobody would vote for anyone. But the overall point is that people hate the idea of targeted political ads because it feels like an invasion, even more so (per the above results) than corporate ads. TechPresident, which covered the study, was surprised at how dismissive political ad companies
were of the results.
Rich Masterson, Chairman of one such company, Campaign Grid, responded:
"The Annenberg study is interesting but raises more questions then it answers. From a methodology standpoint the researchers never asked respondents if they were registered to vote and whether or not they voted in the last election. Regrettably a majority of Americans don't show up at the polls because they have become disaffected by the process. It's unclear if the respondents are the same people who don't show up at the polls or if they are in fact engaged in the process. Secondly, the researchers made little to no effort to inform the survey respondents that the technology used for targeting is, in fact anonymous. The presumption that an individual's privacy is violated would lead one to assume the results would be negative. Lastly, there are many surveys that indicate Americans do not like negative campaign advertising, exercise or healthy diets. The fact that Americans do not like these things does not make them bad."
Let's paraphrase that paragraph and boil it down to his three points in order to highlight the problem: so many people are disenfranchised with the political process that most don't go to the polls (or vote), people would supposedly react differently if they were told that their privacy was being invaded for a positive end result, and just because people hate the way most campaigns conduct themselves doesn't make that conduct bad. It's an incredible full-circle paragraph, where we go from the problem being disenfranchised voters to the proud assertion that the very things Masterson's company is doing to disenfranchise them aren't bad. Oy.
But the other problem is one Masterson touched upon, but is better highlighted by a response from Jim Walsh and Chris Massicotte, executives at DSPolitical, another political ad agency:
"It is understandable that Americans think that they don't want political advertising tailored to them when asked directly. But the simple fact is, and as this report points out, political advertisers have been tailoring messages to Americans since the beginning of the modern political campaign. When cable TV began political advertisers would choose what channels to advertise on based on their desired demographics and sometimes tailoring different ads on different channels. Tailored online advertising is not very different from tailored direct mail, which has proven very effective."
This is exactly wrong. The difference between online advertising, particularly on social media sites, and advertising via television or direct mail is that the internet is not a broadcast medium
. It's a communications tool, one which flows in many directions rather than from producer to recipient. As such, if you're going to engage in activity that everyone hates
, and you're going to do it using the internet, you can expect the backlash to be huge. Your ads, particularly those that mistep or annoy, will not only turn off the recipient, but they will be commented upon, derided, all by the very same platform you used to send them. As TechPresident concludes:
"People like Walsh, Massicotte and Masterson, and the political operatives and politicians who hire them, may want to remember one key thing about the Internet. Unlike TV or direct mail, it's a two-way medium. The people who are being targeted can talk back. And lately, salient numbers of people have been talking back at all kinds of targets. If the political targeting industry and its clients aren't careful, they may find the bulls-eye painted on their backs."