Should Digital Marketing Employ TV Standards?

Watch how you ruminate, obfuscate or opine on issues on your favorite social media platforms. Your words might be used against you.

Forget about all your traditional digital media data — general consumer-buying behavior data, the TV shows you watch or what sites you visit. It's more about the actual words you use when it comes to thoughts and opinions on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or other platforms.

Nefarious and not-so-nefarious marketers — including your favorite Russian-backed marketers — will find a way to feed you stuff that you recognize, taken from the phrases and words you have used on a consistent basis.

And you’ll say to yourself, upon seeing those ads: “Yes, that's what I have always thought!” — without realizing where that messaging originated.

Speaking on CNBC on Tuesday, Tristan Harris, a design ethicist who has worked at Google, said marketers can scrape your posts for specific words and phrases.



“I can advertise to you later and steer you toward content,” he says. “I’m manipulating your exact psychology without you even realizing it. We have to modify phrases like ‘We are giving people what they they want.’ [Instead] we are good at animating people’s experiences, based on what we want them to experience.”

It could be a “good” experience — like buying healthier food or selling a health-club membership. Or it could be problematic — persuading or deepening your opinions through deceptive political advertising that lies.

Harris says you can advertise to such people with many subtle messages that seem unrelated. But as with Russian-based political marketing efforts, it comes from a single source, with a targeted message.

Harris says his role at Google arose from this question: “How do you ethically manipulate what 2 billion people’s thoughts will be today?”

Feel unsettled about this? It probably comes from those two words “ethically manipulate.”

In his stand-up act, comedian George Carlin used to talk about oxymorons: legally drunk, military intelligence, religious intolerance, airline food and, of course, business ethics.

Traditional TV doesn’t have this type of engagement — at least not yet.  Still, with traditional TV, there is oversight at the start when it comes to TV commercial/advertising standards units. Obvious faux claims have networks easily putting the kibosh on controversial TV commercials.

Not so with digital media, which, through its obsession with algorithms, can be dominated by a different set of executives: technical engineers. Blurring new digital-marketing efforts — without oversight (hello, regulation) — will remain troublesome.

Here is a digital-marketing suggestion for the future: Drop the math, hire more humans. And one more thing: Don’t take me at my word.

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