The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica controversy has shown how easily our social media data can be exploited. Marketers, political parties, and shadowy third parties can now harvest information about us, divide us up into homogeneous groups, and send targeted messaging in ways far beyond what was imagined a decade ago.
Many articles have summarized the events and participants, in particular those unethical actions. Our attention was brought to the fact there is currently little empirical evidence of the effectiveness or impact of the psychographic analysis tools used by Cambridge Analytica. Surprisingly, this method was hailed as the “ultimate weapon of marketing.”
The articles are based on our experiences and discussions with researchers in marketing and consumer research who have a deep understanding of the evolution and application of market research methods.
Beyond mere demographics
The psychographic-segmentation tool employed by Cambridge Analytica extends the traditional marketing audience or voter analysis beyond simple “demographics” (age, gender, education) toward profiling based on personality traits and value-based scores. This method, which combines “big data” obtained from Facebook profiles, algorithmically enhanced statistical analyses, and stealth marketing techniques, has become a digital marketing secret that is envied by advertising and marketing professionals.
The result was that psychographic data about millions of people could be automatically deduced from Facebook data without the usual burdensome process of answering hundreds of questions by each participant analyzed. Wade’s “reverse engineering,” based on the social media activity of users, can estimate psychological traits based only on 100 Facebook “likes.”
Summary of the Machine-Learning Implementation and Analytical Procedure
Some claim that Facebook likes can be used as a psychometric indicator to produce “terrifyingly precise personality analysis.” However, this method has some limitations. A Facebook page, for example, is not a solitary act, as it would be to fill out a questionnaire. It is a social and symbolic action that must be understood in context with the platform.
Two other factors should be considered when evaluating the accuracy of CA’s predictions. The first is whether psychographic analysis can be used to derive marketing insights second, whether the micro-targeted content of advertising via psychographic techniques can influence people’s minds.
What is the best weapon of the past?
Market segmentation is a technique that has been developed in marketing and consumer research because it’s not possible or effective for a marketer to try to reach everyone with the same message. Marketing communication is based on the theory and practice of targeting a subgroup that will be more likely than others to respond positively to a marketing message. The logic behind choosing the most effective segmentation criteria and targeting criteria has evolved, not the least because of technological advances and new possibilities.
Max Weber was a German economist, and sociologist in 1894. Wikimedia, CC BY
The marketing scholars and practitioners of the post-World War II era, despite the work done by theorists from the early 20th century, such as Thorsten Veblen, Max Weber, and others, have heavily relied on the individualist and behavioral psychological paradigm. This was the golden age for psychographic segmentation, where target groups were profiled and scored based on their personality traits or value systems (for example, the VALS system).
However, the personality/value-based measurement has consistently been challenged for its ability to predict actual behaviours, such as a specific product, brand, or environmental choice (Wedel and Kamakura, 2000 and; Rokka and Uusitalo, 2008). These approaches also assume that behavior is shaped by differences between “global” values or psychological states (openness (conscientiousness), extraversion (agreeableness), and neuroticism (neuroticism), which are “necessarily void of any impact of sociohistorical context” (Holt 1997). A universalized and abstracted personality type is unable to capture the cultural complexity of consumer lifestyles, symbol expression, and tastes.
The shift in thinking has led to the end of widespread psychographic research, at least within marketing and consumer studies. Four decades of research have shown the value of sociocultural perspectives, which are more sensitive to social and symbolic systems influencing our lifestyle choices and tastes. ( Arnould & Thompson 2005; Holt 1998). Researchers at the Centre for Lifestyle Research, EM Lyon, also share this perspective. From this perspective, an analysis of Facebook Likes is the analysis of lifestyle associations of individuals and their networks that are governed by socially established expressions of tastes. The main difference between this type of sociocultural style analysis and psychographic segmentation would be that it is not connected to society or its cultural currents.
Propaganda: its power or not
The second issue that has been raised in the Cambridge Analytica controversy is the alleged manipulative power of big data-based psychographics, which are based on naive assumptions about how advertising and communication work.
The 1930s, the height of totalitarian propagandists, saw the mass media as a powerful tool for influencing a population. Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia University rejected this simplistic view a decade after it was first proposed. Their empirical work relativized political propaganda by demonstrating that message effect is mediated largely by interpersonal relationships and collective interpretations. For example, political views are discussed and formed at family dinners and are not just absorbed through the media. Advertising and marketing research also reflect similar considerations. There is a large body of academic literature indicating that advertising doesn’t increase or decrease alcohol consumption based on empirical evidence ( Tikkanen & Aspara 2017).
The old “magic-bullet” theory has gained a new level of popularity with the advent of big data-based psychographic segments. Cambridge Analytica boasting of “psychological war” is a good example. Psychometric segmentation is a powerful tool for marketing. A recent study showed that some click-throughs increased by 40%. There is little evidence that it can influence people’s decisions about brands or products, let alone change their vote.