Cambridge Analytica Is the Symptom. The Duopoly Is the Sickness. Ethical Marketing Is the Cure.

What Cambridge Analytica did was wrong, but the firm’s behaviour wasn’t an abuse of Facebook’s platform. It was the logical result of a duopoly in digital advertising that has consistently failed to value people or their privacy. That’s a long-term problem for society. But, as Tod Loofbourrow (pictured below), CEO at ViralGains and Digital Fellow at MIT Sloan School, explains in this op-ed for ExchangeWire, as ad tech grapples with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there’s a more immediate opportunity for marketers to have a serious conversation with their customers about privacy.

People or products? Why marketing fundamentals are at war with the duopoly’s ethos

Facebook and Google have only one product: you, the consumer. Silicon Valley observers have warned for years that “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Given that context, you can see why Google and Facebook insist on knowing everything about us to a horrifying level of detail. The duopoly’s products are people. To marketers, those people are potential customers, with whom a trusted relationship is essential to success. Digital has never reconciled these competing values; but that moment is now upon us.

Cambridge Analytica did two things marketers need to understand


While marketers can, and should, have a healthy debate about the efficacy and ethics of psychological targeting, it’s important to remember that the practice is an extension of the kind of audience building marketers have always done. A decade ago, marketers bought cookie-based audiences; in the decades before the internet, marketers used content (TV shows, magazines, etc.) as a proxy for the type of people they wanted to reach. Micro-targeting is not inherently wrong, if there is informed consent. What’s wrong is egregious invasion of privacy, with barely the lightest sheen of consent.

Data abuse

To build its models, Cambridge Analytica asked several hundred thousand people to take a personality quiz that built a standard behavioral profile of each individual. But then they walked through a barn door Facebook left wide open for harvesting the data of the friends of all the people who had taken the quiz, friends who had offered absolutely no reasonable consent for this activity. That door was left open by Facebook for seven years, and the amount and scope of data Facebook had for the taking boggles the mind. Cambridge Analytica gained access to the data of about 50 million people who were connected to the original accounts. In fact, the violation may be closer to 87 million people. None of this violated Facebook’s capabilities at the time, capabilities that seem almost tailor-made to facilitate stealing of highly personal information. What happened here is the kind of abuse that comes from an ecosystem with lackadaisical privacy rules and no regard for the idea that people ought to have a voice in the collection and use of their personal information.

Marketers should adopt an informed consent model

Here’s a question all marketers must ask: who gave you permission to access the data you’re using? The right answer should be: the consumer. Right now, permission is typically a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that’s buried in the legalese of the terms of service of places like Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail. This is a lawyer’s version of consent, not a genuine and considered one. We have seen this problem before. Marketers should look to medicine’s informed consent model as a template here. In healthcare, I can’t bury the risks of surgery in a 20-page legal document; I have to tell the patient clearly and upfront what the risks are.  

Tod Loofbourrow, CEO, ViralGains

What if marketers explained in plain English what they wanted and what they intended to do with it? Not in a 10-page disclosure. In plain English, which is tested to be understood by a person with a middle school education. Not only would that be a more ethical model – one that would guard against the kind of backlash that’s tarnished Facebook’s brand – it would also be an opportunity to begin more meaningful, relevant, and authentic conversations between brands and consumers, as advertisers try to rebuild the trust of the public amidst the rubble that Facebook and Google have left behind.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has it right: “Privacy to us is a human right and a civil liberty.” It’s time to bring ethical practices back to the centre of building trusting relationships between consumers and great brands.