Big data: the dream that has become a nightmare
The intensity of discussion around the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal may be fading, but the incident undeniably created a sense of public alarm over how companies use personal data. The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation act (GDPR) in the EU is widely seen as a step towards taming an environment that has become out of control.
Opinions on just how out of control things are from a marketing perspective vary. Jamie Barnard, general counsel of global marketing, media and ecommerce for Unilever, suggested concerns were overblown. He said the belief that marketers are destroying privacy arises because people “don’t understand how data works in advertising, and as a consequence they fear the worst”. In reality, advertising uses primarily cookie data, which results in “very little privacy invasion”.
"Our problem is that we put a shitload of money into a system that has created adverse effects and we tend to hide away from our role and responsibility."
—Matthias Berninger, Mars
Others took a darker view, bearing in mind that big brands that use Facebook have essentially trodden a similar path to the Cambridge Analytica fiasco for years. Matthias Berninger, VP of public affairs for Mars and a former politician, said that through its use of data, marketing had helped create a “little monster” that was “having a much bigger effect on society than anybody forecast”. He said advertisers were still failing to acknowledge this.
“Our problem is that we put a shitload of money into a system that has created adverse effects and we tend to hide away from our role and responsibility,” he said. “In doing that we are destroying privacy to a point that I think is very dangerous for society.”
He added that the “great dream” of hyper-targeted advertising had “turned out to be a nightmare”. That’s partly because people don’t necessarily want overly personalised ads served to them, and partly because they lack control over their personal data. According to the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), by the time a consumer is served an ad online, an average of 50 companies will have ‘touched’ the data that underpins that delivery.
Barnard noted that data usage will probably increase tenfold by 2025 to include biometric, voice and AI data as well as from more established online platforms. He said more cases like the Cambridge Analytica scandal would be inevitable (and indeed this week Facebook caused fresh consternation in the US by owning up to data sharing partnerships with Huawei, Lenovo and TCL). While generally positive about GDPR as a spur to innovative, less intrusive marketing, he said it failed to acknowledge that people simply don’t read the legal privacy notices they receive, meaning they will still agree to things they don’t understand.
"GDPR is built on the assumption that consumers can exercise meaningful choice, when we all know that is simply not the case. ... I think it’s on companies like us to join together to find ways to make it viable for people to exercise that level of choice."
—Jamie Barnard, Unilever
“We know that no one [reads them],” he said. “It’s a farce and the GDPR is built on the assumption that consumers can exercise meaningful choice when we all know that is simply not the case.” The best outcome would be a system where people can choose who has access to what data without ever having to read a privacy notice, he said. “I think it’s on companies like us to join together to find ways to make it viable for people to exercise that level of choice.”
Berninger agreed that individuals should have full power over their data and said the GDPR ruling helped increase transparency, which should help restore consumer trust. He was doubtful that advertisers “can get something as important as the digital economy right” without continuing to partner with regulators.
“I remember conversations where [GDPR] was the worst thing on earth,” he said. “It was because we thought that regulators don’t need to add rules to the game. This was the wrong view of the world. We need to support regulators to get this right.”
"It’s not something that any one company can solve. This has to be an area where we have cooperation across the industry.”
—Phil Myers, PepsiCo
Barnard added it was important to remember that data held by private companies can be used for good. As an example, he pointed to the recent application of Vodafone’s user data to help contain the spread of epidemics in Ghana. Rather than being overly apologetic for their mistakes, marketers “should all be leaning in and trying to raise the standards,” he said.
A failure to do so would undermine efforts to create advertising content that is more in touch with consumer sentiment, said Phil Myers, SVP of global public policy and government affairs for PepsiCo. Myers said the average consumer has long viewed online marketing as akin to the "Wild West" or a "black box", and that recent incidents, if left unchecked, would deepen that mistrust.
“What’s important is that we don’t let the delivery means of the message become as susceptible to consumer criticism as the message,” he said. “But it’s not something that any one company can solve. This has to be an area where we have cooperation across the industry.”
Part Two will focus on the ethics of advertising food products that are potentially unhealthy.