April 13, 2010

Does Behavioral Marketing Have A Social Responsibility in the US Election?



With a tight election, a strangulating economy and the most popular show on television being about Sexism, Booze and Perry Como, it's Friday in America.

With 54 days left in the election cycle, it's clear that Behavioral Modification may have an "ever so slight" influence in the campaign cycle. Oh, perhaps a bit more. It begs (and we mean begs) the question whether Behavioral Marketing has a social responsibility?


The future is obviously unknown. Things we never thought possible, such as the wholesale flea-market deals that were offered to government bureaucrats on the corner of Wall and Broadway this week would have been unthinkable a year ago. Taking a quote from John Authors, columnist for the Financial Times, "Lewis Carroll's White Queen (from Alice in W-Land) "believed" as many as six unbelievable things before breakfast."

Here's number seven. Will the 2008 election campaigns do such an outstanding job at appealing to the darker side of us angels that the next White House administration will decide to nationalize Tacoda, Revenue Science and or the hundreds of other targeting tools out there? Why? For the purpose of protecting the populace from the evils their behavioral modification, just as they are doing to Wall Street?

Is that a long shot? For sure. However, it comes to mind based on what we see already as the mass exploitation of how big lies are being so well executed and targeted through behavioral-based digital media. Make that all media.


How much responsibility does Behavioral Marketing have in society? Other than established legal elements like the COPPA kid guidelines, is there a line we should not cross as it relates to targeting a person's personal "preferences?"

Behavioral marketing in fact doesn't try to change a person's view of things. Rather, it reinforces them. It says, "Hey, since you're "like that, you might like this." Be it a product, a service or a series of candidates. Is there anything wrong with that? No, and yes.

To the more cynical amongst us, the word "preference" is just another word for bias, or prejudice. By its general definition, Behavioral Marketing reflects the process of aiming messages that fit into consumers' views and actions relative to the people around them, their surroundings and themselves; essentially how they see the world. Prizm and other research companies have segmented mindsets based on geography among other things, which is premised on the "birds of a feather live together"; a clearly legitimate approach. To account planners, these issues are the tools of the trade. However, with the tracking of consumer behavior online, marketers can segment product interest by how they think, regardless of their zip code. The degree of target specificity has leapfrogged far ahead of its former pace vs. a generation ago.


In the film Jurassic Park, the mathematician challenged the group, including the blood-sucking lawyer of the "invisible" consequences unleashed by technology. He questioned if they really knew what they were doing or worried about the potential issues that were unknown or ignored based on profit-driving thoughts.

No one should doubt that the account planner's role is not to judge, but to help sell. The film Crash's relevance to this topic makes a very convincing case that fear is a powerful motivator. The situations the characters find themselves in trigger certain emotions and/or behaviors that certain people would find intimidating and uncomfortable; though many marketers and political campaigns find very appealing.

We see it everyday from crash test dummy ads to health-related cereals. However, get ready for all the financial ads which will soon promote various image-building elements and their concern for victims. Not the ones victimized by Hurricane Ike, the ones hurt by the stock market crash. Perhaps our MadAve experience makes us see this as an incredibly pathetic and underhanded tactic. It is and it also works to make us feel more warm and fuzzy in our recliners that AIG, BOA, ML or any new combo-salad green-bucks company is more concerned about little kids than their next quarterly profit. We can't help but see the brilliance that these upcoming campaigns will have emphasizing their selfless concern for protecting their "clients" vs. shareholders.

Positioning a leading financial company in more emotional terms would be more believable if the message was paid for voluntarily by their employee's pockets; the ones left perhaps. They won't.


We anticipate financial advertisers will beat each other's brand senselessly to be at the head of the line to show how they can out-warm and fuzzy their competition. We fear that the 2008 campaign will take just the opposite approach. To beat the candidate's image senselessly to get people to think about how their opponent doesn't care about them at all.

Financial companies could spend their marketing dollars worse. However, we're not so surea about the 2008 political media strategists.

If you were a network buyer, which TV medium would you be choosing to place your meanest targeted ad. The choices are:
1. Network Cable News
2. Network Cable News
3. Network Cable News
4. Jeopardy

If you don't choose options 1 through 3, you may very well put your campaign and/or job in Jeopardy.

Marketing 101 and common sense (vs. Common Cause) tells us that if an advertiser can get their message in front the person when they are in a very distressed, concerned or vulnerable state of mind, no doubt they will more easily close the sale. The products and/or services that most obviously pop up as solutions in the film Crash would be health, home and business insurance, self-reliance-based children's educational books, automobiles, health food, data privacy and even liquid cleaners that remove magic marketer or spray paint.

Most disturbingly for us was the not-so-subtle message that having a gun at arms-reach might provide a better sense of security. Gun experts don't promote that statistics don't necessarily support this concept. In reality, the chances of an inexperienced gun owner hurting themselves and their loved ones are higher than you might imagine.


We are reminded of GM's brilliant PR move a couple of years ago (before the suicidal robot) to announce they were firing 25,000 employees on the same day of their latest "employee discount" promotion. In watching the latest campaign dusted off for 2008, we can't help but feel really sorry for the employees (or actors playing employees) in the recent TV commercials. Yet we worry that their bad luck will rub off on us, the moment we get behind the wheel of a new comfy chevy.

Has the train really left the station on behavioral marketing or are new technologies still getting on the bus.? There are now rumors of companies offering technology which can measure body temperature through web cams, like treadmill exercise machines which helps you monitor your heart rate.


At the end of the day, each of the Crash's characters had to move off their initial preferences and into another, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse space. It revealed that our preferences are reflective of the people and effects in our surroundings. And sometimes, if we are going to survive, the pragmatic thing to do is to be somewhat more flexible. Our preferences after all could be the things that put us into harm's way versus the otherwise stated goal.


For those who took business 101 in school, a discussion on social responsibility of business and Behavioral Marketing wouldn't be complete if we didn't mention Milton Friedman's well-known thesis that "the only social responsibility business has is to maximize profits for its shareholders." Some organizations of course do this better than others.

However if the worst did happen, if the government nationalized the behavioral targeting industry as they have Wall Street, what would happen if they then put them together? Just as we are thankful that the government is stepping in to help avoid the worst financial disaster since 1929, their desire to rescue us from the dangers that some will try to inflict upon us during this political season, will we one day see a government award be given by the Department of Behavioral Targeting - which works closely with the Department of the Treasury - to a bureaucrat for the "Best Behavioral Marketer of the Year" at a White House dinner thrown by the POTUS?

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