Canada's non-partisan approach and the future of data

Mark Zuckerberg addresses the US Congress

Stolen data. 87 million records. Facebook scandal. Congressional hearings. Investigations.

For the past two weeks, since the story about Cambridge Analytica broke, headlines and news feeds alike have been filled with sensational stories about the depth of the data breach, and the inquisition to assign blame (spoiler alert: it’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is in front of the US Congress today – April 10).

It’s nothing new

To understand this story and consider the possible remedies, we need to dig deeper into political marketing norms and remember that everything old is new again.

Let’s start here: data-informed marketing is nothing new. In the 1930s, the term “soap opera” was coined to describe daytime radio dramas targeted at housewives. Savvy soap marketers knew that women - who bought skin care and cleaning products – listened to the radio at home during the day, and the soap companies took advantage of that by sponsoring the daytime dramas.

Fast-forward a few decades, and as the data revolution hit direct mail marketing, the emergence of databases and third-party data allowed marketers to customize their mail. They could “score” recipients, using data like purchasing history obtained through reward programs, home ownership data, car registration data, and many other sources assign individuals on their mailing list a propensity score – whether they were likely to buy a particular product. Marketers would then write direct mail pieces customized to each recipient based on those scores.

In a US case made famous by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio personality Terry O’Reilly, Target stores used their purchasing habit database to develop a pregnancy score for women – to determine which female consumers should have baby products marketed to them. Moms are a valuable consumer segment, so this targeting made a lot of sense for Target.

One day, a man walked into a Target in Minneapolis irate, wanting to know why his teenage daughter was receiving pregnancy-related coupons from Target.

The manager apologized promptly.

A few days later the father contacted the manager again, this time apologetic. It turns out the man’s daughter was pregnant – and Target’s data model had figured it out first.

Who’s looking out for the little guy?

The Cambridge Analytica affair has been big news here in Canada for two simple reasons: Canadians are concerned about their privacy, and they abhor Donald Trump.

Canada and its provinces each have a privacy commissioner – a non-partisan officer of the parliament or legislature (similar to the congressional budget office in the US) responsible for protecting Canadian’s privacy rights. These privacy officers have been leaders on social media issues – investigating, issuing rulings, and generally standing up for the average Canadian who doesn’t have time to become a privacy expert.

The Cambridge Analytica story has prompted privacy commissioners in Canada to launch investigations into Facebook’s data sharing practices – which could spell trouble for the social media platform. Unlike the US, where many of the investigations are more partisan political circus than an honest attempt to protect personal privacy, privacy commissioners in Canada are non-partisan, and their recommendations are taken seriously. They’ve often been catalysts for change – and I would expect that they will lead the charge for better laws to protect Canadians.

Unfortunately, the Trump/Cambridge Analytica affair is part of a much larger political marketing arms race, and this is probably just a case of closing the barn door after the horse has already left.

The reality is that average Canadians – and Americans – expect companies to safeguard the data they collect – and be held accountable if they don’t. Facebook and the other social media platforms missed their opportunity to self-regulate. They were too busy acting like brash, immature tech startups to realize the responsibility they’d taken on – and I suspect we’re going to see Zuckerberg and others now pay the price for that arrogance.

Without a doubt, the best answer is stricter privacy regulations – like exist in the EU – to ensure that big digital players like Facebook and Google aren’t playing fast and loose with our personal data. The voting public needs someone to look out for our interests – someone with a big stick – to make sure that these software giants don’t once again go too far.

But that could leave advertisers in the cold

The truth is that digital platforms have been a blessing for marketers like me. They give us unprecedented reach, and ability to target with unheard of granularity, and are hugely scalable.

In politics, it gives us the ability to put the right message in front of the right voter at the right time. It’s changed the game.

The coming regulations – in Canada, the US, and elsewhere – will be good for consumers, but could adversely affect marketers and brands. There needs to be a balance.

To be clear, I think Facebook went too far too fast, and something needs to change. But we also have to remember that advertising is about give and take.

Those daytime dramas enjoyed by housewives were free on the airwaves – thanks to the sponsorship of those soap companies. Likewise Facebook – which is an integral part of millions of people’s lives – is completely free, ad-supported.

Advertising has endured for generations by ensuring that there’s a reasonable balance between the consumer and the advertiser. It’s a delicate dance, and Zuckerberg and company would be wise to think long and hard about how to protect that balance before they lose everything.

Michael Roy is principal at Point Blank Creative in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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