Arming The Militias

Balance, transformation, journey, container (boundary), connection, resources, and control: These are, according to persuasion master and Harvard Marketing Research maven Gerry Zaltman, the metaphors underlying human decision-making.

Why point this out? In advertising, we take persuasion very seriously. Message-makers know how to use the tools of language, psychology, and social science to change people’s choices. It’s a powerful capability, but it works for any agenda.

Once messages are created, digital media channels can send each message to people likely to be persuaded. That’s the one-two punch of mass personalization. Then we sell it all to the highest bidder.

It doesn’t take many individual votes to swing a key district. A minority becomes a majority with one solitary vote. You might say advertising technology won the 2016 election, and here we are in 2020, with the stakes higher than ever.  

The likes of Cambridge Analytica can and will do it again.  The data is available.  Marketing whiz kids are sharpening their skills for 2020. They are out there, they know what to do, and how to do it … for whoever pays them.



Seems fair enough. Market economy, right? Live by the sword, die by the sword. Democracy in the age of the web, unchecked, apparently comes to this: Pay off the advertising wonks and win the right to control a nuclear arsenal.

Psssst. Hey buddy, need a bazooka?

Add up the weaponry. Add up the rancor, cast it as a war, squint at it, and it turns out we (advertising) are the arms dealers! We provide the creative frameworks needed to persuade, and the platforms and data needed to target the exact right viewers. We’re like Q in the James Bond movies: “See this little gadget, Mr. Bond? It’s a convertible democrat-seeking message injector. Just insert cash, and it does the rest.”

And what’s our attitude about all that? Apparently, same as an arms dealer. Hey! We didn’t pull the trigger; we just provided the tools.

We take no responsibility for outcomes. We give tools to both sides and may the best party win. We privately hope for a fierce fight because, when the going gets tough, we make more money.

But there’s a problem.

As an arms dealer, if you appear to be the enemy, you are vulnerable. If you work for both sides, both sides know you work for the other. So, you are hamstrung. If you don’t pick a side, you are the worst kind of amoral slob who will take money to further any belief. If you do pick a side, you are the enemy of half the political marketplace. Conflicts are nothing new, but polarized political rhetoric and self-published fake news combine to create a toxic environment for all media.  

One media company, Spotify, solved the problem in a nice way: It has announced it will not take any political advertising for 2020. Company strategists suggest it’s because their listeners detest political ads, which seems to be true — but the position makes quick work of the aforementioned dilemmas and blowback. Clarity is lovely, but most companies can’t have it.

Agencies would likely not take the assignment if the product were called “putting children in cages.”  But it’s not so simple. Layers of causation insulate the arms deal from the effects of the weapons.  

And political candidates always think they are on the side of good, anyway. After all, the candidates can’t always predict the bad outcomes associated with clumsy execution of their platform planks. When bad things do happen, politicians usually resort to some variant of a quote sometimes attributed to Joseph Stalin: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Stalin was, of course, a mass murderer, and a successful Russian politician.

French philosopher Voltaire quipped that “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Indeed. The missions of our employers (or “mandates” from a majority) make it more palatable to support causes inconsistent with mainstream values. But that’s got to stop before greed hiding behind greatness ruins our increasingly fragile planet and society.

So, as the weapons of persuasion become more powerful, the means and motivation to regulate their use are declining. As arms dealers, I suppose we should celebrate — but as humans, we should stand up for our principles. Pick a side, or don’t, but, as the owners of some very powerful weapons, you might want to look in the mirror briefly before taking money from just anybody. 

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