Political campaigns have started to seriously invest in targeted advertising in order to reach specific populations with a specific message. The Kreiss and Welch piece discusses the impact of technology and databases on political campaigns. The authors note that campaigns are not solely reliant on human actors, but also technology as well. As we have seen in several of the pieces we’ve read, databases and information on voters has drastically expanded in recent elections. The Kreiss and Barnard piece really outlines the rise from simple online campaigns in 2000 to immensely intricate and expensive multifaceted campaigns. The Kreiss and Welch piece naturally agrees that this rise has been an important trend in politics and touts the ability of consistent infrastructure, especially through databases, to help Obama win the 2012 election.
The ability to target audiences has drastically improved as campaigns now have the information necessary to target individual voters as opposed to merely areas or blocks of voters. Political campaign advertising is quite similar to corporate advertising in this respect and many others. The information that campaigns have begun to gather is increasingly personal, which raises many potentials privacy concerns. The Kreiss and Welch piece breaks down data used for targeting into two categories. In addition to public data like voter registration that has been accessible and used for longer, campaigns have begun truly utilizing commercial data. The campaigns can gather information on people’s buying history and make generalizations based off of information like what kind of car you own and whether or not you’re buying diapers. These generalizations allow the campaign to guess which way you are likely to vote and how likely it is that you’re opinion could be swayed, (Kreiss and Welch). Campaigns are also able to access information about people’s online history, especially through social media.
The use of this level of information has raised privacy concerns. While there is no right to privacy expressly stated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has long recognized it as a fundamental right. Facebook and site like Google are able to gather massive amounts of information on their users and sell that to advertisers. Political campaigns have used the same process as companies looking to sell their product. If you buy a lot of diapers online, for instance, you may start to see ads for other baby products. In the same way, if a political campaign can guess that you are likely a moderate voter or a voter partisan to their side but with a bad history of voter turnout, they are able to target you. A New York Times piece by Vindu Goel looks at the incredible stores of personal information Facebook has access to. Facebook has information on your age, where you live and even what you ‘like.’ In order to alleviate some privacy issues, Facebook does not reveal the account’s identity to advertisers, but the other information is still incredibly valuable, (Goel).
An interesting journal article by Laussel et al questions whether or not targeted advertising is always beneficial. They look at product advertising, but the results can be extrapolated to politics as all advertising is meant to help influence someone’s decision making process. Another journal article by Justin Johnson examines the targeting of ads to consumers and avoidance of advertising. Johnson concludes that targeted advertising benefits firms, but does not necessarily benefits consumers. He finds that targeting can cause consumers to receive ads other than those they would prefer to see. If the information available shows that a person is a consistent purchaser of a product, they may be targeted by the niche market for that product rather than the mainstream, even if they prefer the mainstream, Johnson argues. Political ads can have similar negative effects through targeting. One worry over targeting is the polarization of the populous. There are already concerns over political polarization with the rise of biased media sources like Fox News and MSNBC. Johnson also finds that while consumers may not always prefer targeted ads, they do prefer ‘perfectly’ targeted ads. So if the firm can gather enough information or make an educated guess that’s correct, they can have a great impact on the consumer. However, firms, like political campaigns, will rarely target someone perfectly. It is nearly impossible for campaigns to know exactly what someone is thinks about a politician or which part of the platform may appeal to them, especially considering these things are often changing in the minds of the voter and the politician, (Johnson).
Ben Elhadj-Ben Brahim, N., Lahmandi-Ayed, R., & Laussel, D. (2011). Is targeted advertising always beneficial? Science Direct, 29(6), 678-689.
Goel, V. (2014, September 28). With New Ad Platform, Facebook Opens Gates to Its Vault of User Data. New York Times.
Johnson, J. (2013). Targeted advertising and advertising avoidance. The Rand Journal of Economics, 44(1), 128-144.
Kreiss, D., & Welch, C. (n.d.). Controlling the Message in a Networked Age.