Cambridge Analytica and the good old art of storytelling

So the Trump Facebook drama has finally sunk data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. In some respects, although it does sound odd to say it, I sort of feel sorry for them given how little real evidence there is that their Trump campaign had anywhere near the level of influence on the US election it is being accused of having.

One thing they did do was tell great stories. Arguably, if they hadn’t been such brilliant storytellers, dramatically overselling what they could do, they’d probably still be around. 

But the reality was somewhat different; some articles like this one go so far as to suggest they sold little more than snake oil. Another article points out that, given Ted Cruz spent the same amount with the same tactics as Trump and didn’t win, any effect can’t have been that dramatic (assuming the Daily Mail article is wrong and at least some of it did work).

However, even aside from the above circumstantial evidence against any major effect, there’s another very good reason that the whole Cambridge Analytica election saga was “more creepy, immoral data ‘borrowing’ and some minor nudging” than the main reason Trump won the White House.  

Most people are aware of how dogmatic people can be with regards to political viewpoints. Often, any discourse is a waste of time if the outcome is to change someone’s mind. Psychologists have studied this effect at length. Ironically, the more evidence you provide to someone about why their political or economic viewpoint is wrong, the less likely they are to change their mind. It’s called motivated reasoning. We don’t like the cognitive discomfort of feeling one way when presented with facts that suggest another, so we typically ignore the challenging facts and find some other ‘alternative facts’ (not hard in today’s world) to support the way we feel. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the behaviour is most strongly witnessed in the most important beliefs or topics. Religion perhaps being the best example, whereas something more trivial like weather is at the other extreme – few people when confronted by a sunny day and a friend suggesting it’s going to rain, become indignant and refuse to believe the prediction of rain.

Psychologist Tom Gilovich explains the strangeness of motivated reasoning nicely by suggesting we are actually answering two different questions. For information we want to believe, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe this?” – i.e. seeking permission to believe – whereas for information that is challenging our beliefs, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe this?” – i.e. looking for a way out of believing. 

Bringing this back to the world of marketing, clearly most of the products in the business world are not as personally important as politics or religion, however, some of the principles still apply. For brands we like, additional information tends to be easily accepted and provides us with ‘proof’ about how great our choices are. This, incidentally, is the reason why many people read product reviews post-purchase. But by the same token, if we are presented with information about brands we do not like, we typically ignore it or dismiss it as spurious. 

Brand familiarity and likeability, which can only be built ahead of purchase, still matter considerably in most purchase or voting scenarios.

It seems a little grating to hear it, given how underqualified he is for the job, but Trump built a strong brand before going into politics and continued to do so during his campaign. For a country looking for change, he was change personified, with a nice set of hats to boot. In this context, the Cambridge Analytica tactics (assuming they did indeed exist and performed as well as they’re being given credit for) would undoubtedly have provided momentum for the Trump believers and persuaded a few semi-believers or swing voters, whereas Cruz on the other hand, who presumably was presented with the same clever tactics at the same level of spend, had much less success due to having a much weaker brand.

So as the old saying goes, it seems you still can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Not even with the latest in smart, contextualised, customised and optimised real-time messaging.

Although, if it turns out that the Daily Mail article is correct (and there’s every chance that we will never find out the truth now), it just validates that you can polish a turd, at least for a little while, but only with great old-fashioned storytelling.

  • Simon Bird is group strategy director at PHD New Zealand

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