Is Psycho-Graphic Electoral Marketing the Future?

Psycho-graphic profiling giants like Cambridge Analytica have come under fire for micro-targeted political marketing. Nevertheless the dominance of such services seems to be the future of political campaigns.

25.04.2018 | by Kezia Parkins
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Photo by ... on Wordstream

The Facebook data breach and the Cambridge Analytica scandal introduced to the public a relatively new term – Psychographic profiling. While a number of news organisations sought to explain the term, most of them seemed to have missed the mark in terms of its relation to politics and electoral campaigns.

Psychographics as a branch of micro-targeting practices in marketing has existed for close to a decade. Micro-targeting in traditional marketing relied heavily on demographics i.e. who the consumers were, their gender, their family composition, their income slab, their geographical location, and their position in the social hierarchy (as certain communities seem to enjoy a more privileged position in the society than others). These are just a few examples. Digital marketing developed with the IT boom and put the micro-targeting tactics on steroids- giving birth to psychographics.

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While demographically targeting consumers revolved around the question of ‘what do consumers want’, psychographically targetting consumers goes deeper than that. It seeks to ask the question of ‘why would a consumer want or buy this.’ Psychographic profiling relies on soft-impact-data such as the purchasing behaviour of a consumer, their responsiveness to certain kinds of ads, their inclination towards particular words or colours, their moral concerns and other such pieces of information which would not appear on a job application form.

Social media marketing grew as a subset of digital marketing and became the focal point of digital marketing strategies. With the abundance of data available on social media websites, which consumers submitted wittingly or unwittingly, internet giants such as Facebook and Google became the omniscient lords of human psychology.

Political Marketing which relied heavily on demographics —  and still does in the majority of countries — saw the opportunity presented by the social media audience and ran with it. At the eye of the Cambridge Analytica storm was a particular personality test devised by two researchers at the Department of Psychology, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell.  They endeavoured to craft completely algorithmic approaches to human psychological evaluation.

Those efforts included a popular 2007 Facebook app called myPersonality that allowed Facebook users to take a psychometric test and see themselves ranked against the ‘Big Five’ personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (often shortened to OCEAN). According to the report in The Guardian, which first ran the whistleblower Christopher Wylie’s claims, Cambridge Analytica had approached the authors of the myPersonality app for help with its ads targeting campaign. On being rebuffed, another researcher associated with Cambridge’s psychology faculty, Aleksandr Kogan, offered to step in and reproduce the model.

Christopher Wylie – The Observer

Now Facebook does not let the advertisers target ads based on any of those psychological profiles but user data relating to their likes, comments, status updates, video views and browsing patterns lets profilers such as the ones working for Cambridge Analytica draw relations between the user’s digital behaviour and their physical behaviour.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) has come under fire for illegally harvesting Facebook data, however, there is something absolutely fundamental to CA’s services that has gone completely unscathed – the use of psychographics to influence votes.

Alexander Nix, the man who established Cambridge Analytics as part of the Strategic Communications Lab (SCL) Group, has been quite an enigmatic figure caught at the centre of the debate. His firm and several other data analytics companies have been hailing psychographic micro-targeting as the science of tomorrow.

“Most communication companies today still tend to divide the voter base into demographics and geographics, which if you really think about, is a ridiculous idea”
– Alexander Nix, Ex-CEO Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica Logo

Political marketing has relied on classical marketing strategies for a long time but armed with massive data-led research and bespoke insight into the voters’ (consumers in this case for all means and purposes) minds, they could change the way campaigns are carried out. The cost of running online campaigns is much lower than traditional billboard brandishing campaigns. Also, the market research in election campaigns could become much more cost efficient as the field of psychographic political marketing (PPM) takes off. However, cost-cutting is seldom the selling point for electoral strategies. The precision offered by PPM is its unique selling point (USP) and it is set to improve in the future. Data mining and data analytics are still in the very nascent stages and the limits of psychographics are well known. But, as the technology improves, the field of political marketing could change with it, producing more finely tuned, personal and possibly a more invasive version, of political campaigns.

Alexander Nix seems to be quite hopeful about the future of the implications of behavioural sciences in politics. However, the critics of the method disagree. Steve Bannon in an interview with Financial Times said that “the profiling thing doesn’t even work”.

“This whole thing about psychographics was optionality in the deal. If it ever worked, it worked, but it hasn’t worked and it doesn’t look like it’s gonna work. It was never even applied.”
– Steve Bannon, Former White House Chief Strategist

Steve Bannon at CPAC in Maryland

Cambridge Analytica is facing a hard time due to its allegedly inappropriate use of Facebook data, which it claims it acquired fair and square. The controversy has pushed the field of psychographic data drives communication into the limelight and although the world might have reservations about it, there is no law preventing psychographic micro-targeting in elections. As far as we know, behavioural and psychographic targeting of voters will define the future of election campaigns.

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"Fundamentally, the more you know about someone, the better you can communicate with them at a human level or at a mass communication advertising level"
- Alexander Nix

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