Customer-obsessed marketing

What The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook Drama Tells Us About Brand Safety Today

Brigitte Majewski
Vice President, Research Director
May 3, 2018

We didn’t think the Cambridge Analytica story could get any darker, but clearly it has. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy, with clients fleeing the firm after improper data harvesting and suspect targeting practices for election manipulation were revealed. The article disclosed that Cambridge Analytica had been planning to reorganize with SLC Group, an intelligence contractor with ties to Blackwater.

Despite its best efforts, Facebook can’t shake the negative halo of Cambridge Analytica. Why is Facebook still in the conversation? After all, it’s no longer dealing with Cambridge Analytica. Well, the bankruptcy leaves much unanswered, such as what will become of Cambridge Analytica’s data and algorithm assets, built on the back of Facebook data. As hard as Facebook tries to move on with its saccharine branding commercial and new online dating tools, it keeps getting sucked back into the drama.

It’s not clear that any of this bad press affects Facebook that much. While Mark Zuckerberg tried to deflect questions about lack of competition during Senate hearings, the reality is that there really is nothing like Facebook, which is insulated by the network effect and breeds an unparalleled volume of rare data about users’ emotions and values. One keeps users, and the other, advertisers.

But advertisers have to ask themselves if and when advertising on Facebook becomes a brand safety issue — not because their content appears next to questionable material but because the Facebook platform itself has displayed questionable governance as an advertising partner. As consumers mature in their awareness of data and its potential for ethical violations, they will hold brands accountable for their partnerships, even those in the past. This isn’t a caution just for Facebook as a partner or for any social media network. As marketers embark further into technologies and ecosystems, they only partially understand (e.g., AI) the risk of ethical violations that halo back to the brand increases dramatically.

Boards need to ask about partner strategies, not just operations. COOs need to vet advertising and marketing partners as much as they do supply chain partners. Brands that have a lot to lose could found an “Ethics Center of Excellence.” And marketers need to welcome this new oversight as the ultimate in brand safety.

In their seminal research on how values are driving new consumer behaviors, my colleagues Jim Nail and Henry Peyret predicted the emergence of a new discipline called operational ethics and that brands would coalesce into values-based ecosystems where players agree to operate under like-minded standards.

Seems like that time can’t some soon enough.

Thanks to Erna Alfred Liousas for her input on this blog.

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