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We’ve all had the experience of browsing the internet and a product suddenly appears on the sidebar that we had been looking at last week. If you know anything about advertising, this may not have been a shock to you. But to the average person, this sort of targeted marketing probably seemed intrusive, and downright creepy. Let’s take this a step further. Instead of manipulating internet users to buy a lamp or a winter jacket, political campaigns are using the same types of information to target voters with strategic messages. With the recent rise in targeted marketing, and now targeted political campaigning, come a slew of ethical questions that political communications professionals need to consider.

One major issue with targeted marketing is that is has the ability to ignore entire demographics of people. In a political setting, it is easy to see how this could be problematic. African-Americans tend to vote democratic in overwhelming numbers; however, imagine if Republican campaigns didn’t even attempt to advertise to African-American populations. It used to hold true that citizens of a strong red state didn’t hear or see many advertisements for Democratic candidates. However, as the Issenberg article elaborated on, new technology methods are allowing for campaigns to reach out to voters who they may have otherwise ignored.

It is disturbing for many Americans to think about how companies have such detailed details about their spending habits, internet browsing habits, and overall preferences. I would go further in saying that it is deeply troublesome for many Americans to think that a political campaign has the same information and uses it so strategically to convince them to vote for a certain candidate. Because many Americans have idealized the concept of democracy, it seems manipulative and deceptive that campaigns would target voters in such a calculated way. Many Americans probably feel that this new form of targeted campaigning is taking away from their autonomy and the idea of democracy has become more of a game with political parties as the players than the form of government that treats all citizens the same and allows everyone to have an equal voice in choosing our leaders. This current working concept of democracy has strayed seriously from Habermas’ idea of the public sphere. Leaders are not chosen through the rational, critical debate of informed citizens. Rather, leaders are chosen by the technology that campaigns utilize to reach certain undecided members of the electorate. Rational, critical discussion has been replaced with illogical, negative campaign advertisements that play toward the hopes and fears of voters. Instead of leaders being chosen by who has the best platform and ideas, leaders are determined by the technology that allows them to guide more supporters to the voting booth on Election Day.
Sasha Issenberg, December 19, 2012. “The Definitive Story of How President Obama Mined Voter Data to Win a Second Term.” MIT Technology Review.

Jurgen Habermas. (1991). “The Public Sphere.” In Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson, eds. Rethinking Popular Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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