The new dark art that has mad men on the run

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Mad Men are on the run as advertising loses its sovereignty in the dark arts of media manipulation. Time to make way for the Maths Masters in today’s battle for minds.

A new form of dark art is being performed by kings of the algorithm, and these young pretenders wield far more power than any advertiser alone.

These are the people who can rig our online systems to sway the mood of countries and cause revolutions. Many argue it was social media manipulation that drove home Brexit and installed Trump – the Trump campaign spent $150m on Facebook and Instagram alone.

Today, the men in the shadows aren’t PRs. They’re men with deep pockets who can hotwire your digital identities and deliver even the most improbable results for vested interests.

And, just as it was at the start of public relations and advertising in the 1920s and ‘30s, we don’t know what’s hitting us.

When Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising launched in 1970 by going very B2C, it bought a page seven ad in the Sunday Times, then with a circulation of 1.4 million, and asked: ‘Have I got a future?’

It’s a question that’s more pertinent now than ever.

Today everyone knows how advertising works. Adspeak and PR spin are part of everyday vernacular as we pick over its excesses. It doesn’t have the same impact it once did.

Back in the 1990s, Max Clifford made his name as a PR fixer of salacious red top stories. How can we forget actress Antonia de Sancha getting her revenge on Tory national heritage minister David Mellor in his Chelsea strip, or Rebecca Loos settling a score with David Beckham in 2004?

In fact, Clifford was not a PR. He sold stories, and his high-vis methods gave the public a skewed understanding of what PRs do.

Whenever Clifford sold a £200,000 toe curler to the News of the World – at one time with a readership of more than 10 million – he’d make them picture him within the story. That way no one was in any doubt about who was behind the headlines. It had to be the one and only Max Clifford.

PR got a different spin with Tony Blair’s self-proclaimed puppet master Alastair Campbell. He made himself a household name as the PM’s rottweiler, defending a dodgy dossier while coming clean over his depression.

When I was a kid I used to lap up Hollywood puff about stars discovered in milk bars by studio bosses. Today we’re told YouTube is a hotbed of discovery, your launch pad to the stars.

Some do make it. Canadian singer songwriter Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, anonymously uploaded a few songs to YouTube in 2010 and hey presto! He signed a record deal in 2012, is now worth $55m and is dating Selena Gomez.

Can it really be that simple? The truth is, it’s not. With record stores having all but disappeared, where are the big record companies spending their marketing dollars? It’s certainly not all on Google ads.

The big money is invested in what we can’t see, the code and back room deals most of us can’t even fathom.

Pollsters reckon that it’s the influence of the vagaries of the internet of everything that’s causing public opinion to bounce around like a ping pong ball these days.

Facebook needing to be regulated is all about it having a duty of care towards a quarter of the world’s population who blindly log in every day to be fed what Facebook decides we want to see.

The privacy debate still totally stands. Governments must not be able to eavesdrop and misuse consumers’ data as we’re drawn ever deeper down the rabbit hole.

eMarketer reports that US adults now spend more than 12 hours a day consuming media, with the UK not far behind at 9.5 hours per day.

Variety found that half of US households now have a subscription VOD service like Netflix or Amazon Prime but the biggest trend, predictably, has been an increase in time spent on mobile devices.

In the past, making a brand a household name was relatively straightforward. Ad agencies would lavish a huge budget on a clever piece of creative based on Freudian theories that would tap into the psyche of their target market.

Let’s say it was food product. A PR company might have whipped up a survey to back up claims of how good it was for you. Remember the Milk Marketing Board’s slogans “full of natural goodness” and “drinka pinta milka day”? Almost innocent by comparison.

As for direct sales, in the art world it’s long been a common practice to use stooges in auction houses to force higher bids. Even street sellers use their own people planted in the crowd to whip up a buying frenzy. You could see the whites of their eyes, but not anymore.

That’s all old hat as black hat tactics take over online. The clever sales moves are all hidden, the stooges depersonalised. We’re subsumed and overcome, no longer maintaining any vestige of control. ‘THEY’ pull our strings from the dark recesses of cyberspace.

In the past, TV ad creatives would tailor their campaigns to fit viewer profiles around particular programmes. Now, online algorithms can make you tune in to things you never wanted to see.

The numbers game works both ways as social media sets great store by ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. The more friends and followers you have the better you work the system for its paymasters.

The psychology at work here is predicated on a basic need – to be liked. People barely have time for a handful or true meaningful friends in the real world. But Facebook algorithms make sure you’re constantly introduced to friends-of-friends-of-friends as you try to break the ceiling and bag 5,000 buddies as a badge of popularity.

The notion of ‘liking’ something and being the most popular is the new language of spin, and it can be manufactured.

As many as 48 million Twitter accounts aren't people, according to a recent study. New research from the University of Southern California and Indiana University shows that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts are bots, not people.

But if a big portion of the likes, retweets and followers lighting up your Twitter account isn’t generated by human hand, what or who is generating it?

That’s the multi-million-dollar question. And to date, all too few of us have grasped the answer.

Bang on to Richard Hillgrove by email, to, or on Twitter @6hillgrove

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