In Kreiss and Welch’s work, “Controlling the Message in a Networked Age” the two authors explore the way in which political campaigns now use data to control their message. One method campaigns implement in order to do this is through targeted online advertising. Kreiss and Welch examine the 2012 Obama campaign’s use of online advertising. The campaign would use online advertising to send specific advertisements to specific groups of people. Data on voters allowed the campaign to adapt advertisements to specific demographic groups. For example, those identified by the campaign as undecided or open to persuasion took up the majority of the campaigns online advertising budget.

Kreiss and Welch also identify that targeted online advertising by political campaigns does not come without serious concerns. The authors cite a national survey that revealed that 86 percent of Americans are not in favor of tailored political advertising. Scholars have also voiced concerns that it leads to campaigns leaving out portions of the electorate, making microtargeting hurtful to the overall electoral process. This has led some to even suggest that the Federal Election Commission should require all campaign advertisements be visible to everyone.

The use of data mining is not limited to political campaigns. It is also prevalent in advertising for commercial products and services. The ethical implications of targeted advertising in the commercial industry have also been a topic of debate.

For example, large retailer Target has been collecting data on their customers for years. They assign each customer a “Guest ID number” that keeps track of everything that person buys. They also link that number to a customer’s age, martial status, home location and other demographic information. Target then uses that information to send specific advertisements. However, for target, this tactic turned problematic when they figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.

A statistician for Target determined a system to identify pregnant customers based on the products they bought in the store. Once the system identified a customer as pregnant, Target could then send them specific advertisements tailored to their pregnant needs. This caused a man in Minnesota to angrily call one Target store demanding to know why his teenage daughter received an ad in the mail for cribs and baby clothes. A few days later the Target manager called the man back to apologize and found out that the man’s daughter was pregnant after all.

Although targeted political advertisements might not have the ability to reveal such sensitive information, for example, whether or not a woman is pregnant, there are still parallels that can be drawn between targeted commercial advertisements and the advertisements of campaigns. Both are taking information from individuals and using it to make certain assumptions. Targeted advertisements can be extremely effective, however, is that effectiveness worth the ethical implications? Is it ok in some situations and not others? Either way, data mining does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.


Kriess, Daniel, and Creighton Welch. Controlling the Message in a Networked Age: Data, Strategic Communications, and the 2012 Presidential Election.




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