The Dark Arts of Advertising

Advertising (noun) – the activity or profession of producing marketing communications to promote or sell products, services or ideas.

There is nothing new about advertising – public ads have been found in Ancient Rome and Pompeii, in Ancient Greece and pharaonic Egypt. A printing plate for an ad for Liu’s Fine Needle Shop in Jinan has been dated to the tenth/eleventh centuries in Song dynasty China (according to Wikipedia).  It is only the means of delivery and, crucially, the degree of sophistication, which has changed in more recent times.

In 2016 the UK spent over £10bn on internet advertising alone, the estimated total global spend on ads of all kinds in 2015 was approximately $530 billion.  The spend is big because advertising works and has been shown to work, not just in bringing products and services available to the notice of the public (thereby promoting their sales) but also in influencing the choices people make.

That this applies in the political sphere isn’t new either – campaign slogans for Roman elections have been found – bill posting was a common form of political advertising in Republican Rome.  Modern democracies understand the efficacy of advertising and the risk it poses – that the candidate or party which has the most money and can afford the most advertising (amongst other things) has an unfair advantage.  This is why most democracies have caps on the amount candidates and parties can spend on political campaigning.

It is also, incidentally, why Vote Leave thought they could buy the Referendum result. “Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum” said Steve Baker, MP. I’ve looked at the spending returns on the Electoral Commission web-site, over a thousand of them, and Baker is certainly right about the amount of money contributed to Vote Leave, rather more than they could legally spend. Which is why they had to fund other bodies to spend it for them – illegally. The money comes by way of multiple donations from wealthy individuals and their companies, like Stanley Kalms, Jack Bamford and Peter Lilley.  Unsurprisingly, those donors with  public profiles tend towards the hard right of the political spectrum, often being anti-gay marriage, anti-climate change, big tobacco types.

What is new is the micro-targeting of specific advertisements to specific people. Finding groups of people likely to be swayed by advertising of a specific type was enabled by the stolen Facebook data – Chris Wylie has shown how that works and there is evidence, which the DCMS committee recommends is explored further, that such techniques have been used successfully elsewhere by the Mercer funded group of companies. In addition there are recently released ads for competitions run by Vote Leave which, ostensibly, have no connection with the Referendum, but which were actually vehicles to collect more personal data. The IPA, the leading UK advertising industry body, has called for a ban on all micro-targeted political advertising ( read about that here ).

Other ads clearly promoted Vote Leave – including many, many ads about that £350million for the NHS, don’t believe the protestations that this lie wasn’t that important in the campaign – all seek their reader to click, in some way or other, so as to identify themselves. These were the ads, which the DCMS committee report calls deliberately misleading and disinformation, such as those stating as fact that Turkey joining the EU was imminent and would begin as soon as the ‘Yes’ vote was called.  We knew that Leave lied ( so too, to a lesser extent, did Remain ) but we didn’t realise just how pointedly and effectively they lied, playing on specific vulnerabilities of specific people and groups. If you weren’t one of the groups, you would never have seen the ads.

Copies of some of the ads disseminated on Facebook can be found on the DCMS Committee web-site or here. It’s worth looking at the spreadsheets included too, they show the target audience for each ad and when the ads were run.  These ads would never have got by the usual regulations on TV and print ads, but on the internet and especially on Facebook, no one was monitoring them. One reason why the DCMS committee recommends regulation and swingeing fines.

For more on the Referendum and after try                                           If Mrs Merton did tax and Brexit                          Criminal Proceedings                        Democracy Bought is not Democracy              Disenfranchisement                     The Clock is Ticking….

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