In Retrospect, All the Facebook Hysteria Will Make Us Laugh

In Retrospect, All the Facebook Hysteria Will Make Us Laugh
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Mass hysteria breaks out periodically – even in Congress! – over pulp media, of which Facebook is now the poster child. But what’s the fun of being a U.S. Senator or Member of Congress if you can’t grandstand a little now and then?

Hollywood came under the hammer for scandal both as to risqué content and lascivious lifestyle, bringing on the Hays Code, in 1930. That was a set of moral guidelines adopted and enforced by the industry to pre-empt the many censorship bills percolating in 37 state legislatures.

And who can forget Fred Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, accusing the comic book industry of being a cause of juvenile delinquency, undergoing the scrutiny of a Congressional inquiry. This led to the Comics Code Authority by which comic book publishers self-censored their publications for many years.

These seem rather quaint, in retrospect.

So will the Facebook hysteria.

But for now…

Last time we looked (yesterday, several times), Facebook was just another form of mass entertainment, kind of an aggregation of millions (OK, billions) of amateur “Reality Shows.” Like “Reality TV,” Facebook makes most of its money from advertising. We the viewers (online, also the producers) get to play, for free, in return for Facebook’s privilege of lobbing ads at us. Fair deal.

What is called by sinister-sounding words like “data mining” is no different in kind – may be slightly different in sophistication, in a good way – from the audience demographic measures that the networks (and cable franchises) present to their advertisers. Or that newspapers or radio stations provide on “rate cards.”

Advertisers hate to waste money pushing snow shovels in Miami or ice cream to the Inuit. Viewers would rather view ads that were more, or more likely to be, tailored to their interests and needs. Win-win.

There’s nothing sinister about this. People who are going into a tizzy about Facebook are collapsing a fundamental distinction. Facebook and Google do not have “our” data.

They have “data about us.” Good.

That, by the way, is what the federal government of the United States collects every ten years, and -- like Facebook -- generously makes available. It’s called the U.S. Census. Yes, there are a few high decibel, high vigilance, people, like former Rep. Ron Paul, who find the Census outrageous and possibly unconstitutional. Takes all kinds!

We have no – and can think of no reasonable grounds for – objection that companies who wish to advertise their products – or campaigns who wish to advertise their candidates – do as much research as they wish to get as much information about us as they can.  Call it “data mining” if that makes you sound hip.  It’s just market research.

Bill Collier, co-author of this article, likes to collect vintage Prussian military helmets.  (Yes.  It certainly takes all kinds!) He doesn’t see why the purveyors of such artifacts should be expected to advertise them to the billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, seven hundred thousand people who have no interest in Prussia, helmets, or Prussian helmets. If the data about him at Facebook suggests that his Facebook Friends are more likely than most to like Prussian helmets – or might get him one as a gift – blessings on advertising to them! That is not a crime. It’s not even a sin.

Facebook has been, and should be, generous with giving prospective advertisers – commercial and political, Republican and Democratic – information about us.  Facebook is in the business of selling advertising. The more valuable they can make that advertising – or even get prospective advertisers to believe it will be – the more money Facebook will make.  Bravo! When did we criminalize capitalism?

How many Congress(wo)men are torqued because  L'Oréal doesn’t advertise lipstick during NFL football games?  Well, guess what, ESPN has “data mined” its audience and discovered – surprise! – that the vast majority of the viewers are men, not an inviting market for lipstick. 

Conversely, we’d be surprised to see Bud Light commercials around the Kardashians. No cries of outrage emerging from the Rayburn Building, from either side of the aisle, on this.

What’s problematic here -- though it is none of Congress’s business, and a self-limiting problem if that – is that the PR agencies – such as Cambridge Analytica – and the advertisers – like the Trump Campaign (and, btw, Obama for America) are almost certainly indulging in one of the oldest fallacies in the advertising business. 

The advertising agencies are dangling the bright shiny object of “microtargeting” and other high-tech features. Such jargon helps to attract and pacify clients. But it offers severely diminishing returns in terms of real world results.

There are some broad relevant parameters. No, don’t waste your political ad dollar advertising on Nickelodeon or Most SpongeBob SquarePants viewers are too young to vote. Roger.

Presumably we do not need this spelled out in the Code of Federal Regulations. Beyond such common sense guidelines there is little evidence that the high-buzzword features such as microtargeting produces cost-effective outcomes at scale.

Our favorite advertising guru, Roy H. Williams, describes what works in his cult classic book Magical Worlds of the Wizard of Ads. Assuming you are selling something (or somebody) that people want, of good quality and competitively priced, and offer a good “personal experience factor,” success -- sales, or a plurality of votes on election day – is determined by a “high impact quotient” ad (vivid, specific, credible and based on truth, not deception) with your message repeated frequently enough (relative to your competition) to work. Period.

People don’t like to hear that.  They’d rather believe in magic. But that’s it.

All of that is properly between the advertiser, the advertising agency and the digital media consultant. The media company – Facebook – is no guiltier of bad practices by being generous with access to its audience data than is NBC for providing as much information as it can get, say from Nielson, on who is watching its shows. Facebook is no guiltier than the US Census Bureau for providing information as to the demographics, ethnicity, and median income of a given region. 

It’s not “our” data.  It’s data “about us.”

Congressional grandstanding? Inevitable. Expect, at the end of all the sound and fury signifying nothing, something like the Hays or Comics Code. And remember what neoclassical celebrity economist Karl Marx said: “all the events … of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. … the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”  Marx stopped short of telling us what comes third, after farce.

When we find the answer to that we will Share it on our Facebook timelines. Look for us, and our data, there. And follow us at Twitter @TheWebster and @MrBillCollier.

Ralph Benko, a Washington consultant, is the author of the international award-winning book, The Websters’ Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World. William Collier is a principal at Intellz, an opposition research and political strategy firm.

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