Big Data, psychometrics, Facebook, and that funny/not-funny orange guy

There’s a very long article that I’ll attempt to summarise so you don’t have to sacrifice one of your limited supply of hours here on Earth. It’s fairly complicated but almost certainly quite important. And like most things these days, it’s got a whole bunch of Trump in it.

Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims to have played an instrumental role in both Brexit and Trump. Their prowess at swinging elections is built on a number of innovations.

First, in psychometrics. Back in the 1980s, university researchers identified key personality traits that enabled them to slice and dice the great sea of humanity. Apparently, we all display more or less of the Big Five traits:

And for once – says the copywriter who’s gnashed his teeth on more than a few naming projects – the damn acronym is both neat and meaningful. I bet there was some serious whooping and high-fiving going on when that was first worked out.

Anyway, back to the spooky stuff. These OCEAN personality traits were a fairly innocuous semi-academic exercise (used mainly for assessment and recruitment of the ‘right kind of people’) until they were accidentally weaponised on Facebook in 2008.

Before Facebook, supplying the info meant filling in a long and pretty weird questionnaire. But researchers created a MyPersonality app on Facebook that made it simple to answer questions and get an instant rating based on the Big Five. Significantly, people could also opt in to share their Facebook data with researchers.

People just love filling in those personality questionnaires, don’t they?

The app was such a big hit that soon researchers found themselves with an unexpected and unprecedented dataset. Millions of people had not only shared insight into their characters based on OCEAN categories, they’d also shared all sorts of details about their Facebook activity.

When researchers mapped the two sets of data against each other, multiple pennies started dropping. They realised you could accurately infer character type from fairly basic details of online behaviour. And you could predict a whole lot else besides. By 2012:

“On the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.”

Now it was simply a question of feeding in more data and continuing to refine the model. Before long they could “evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.”

It seems we’re all way more predictable than we’d like to think.

Soon the lead researcher started to have serious misgivings about where the project was heading. If you could accurately predict personality and core motivations from simple online behaviours, it wasn’t hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where absolutely everyone was absolutely knowable.

In the wrong hands, that kind of insight could be frighteningly powerful.

But by the time he pulled the plug on the project, it was already too late. A company called SCL – the parent company of Cambridge Analytica – had been following the research closely. When their attempt to buy the data failed, they simply went about building their own version.

By creating their own personality quizzes and adding data from all sorts of different sources – including land registries, shopping data and anything from data brokers like Experian – the company was able to build a picture of whole populations in more depth and more detail than ever before. Especially in the US, where data protection laws are much weaker than in Europe.

The question is, though, how useful can all that Big Data be?

This video gives you a good idea. In a slick and faintly terrifying nine minutes, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica explains how they’ve profiled the personality of every adult in the US – and how they used that data to help Ted Cruz (a pretty unappetising candidate) become the only serious contender to Trump for the Republican nomination.

They went on to use the same techniques to help Trump gain the presidency. Rather than relying on the blunt tools of demographics and geography, psychometrics was added to the mix. This not only allowed voters to be categorised into more meaningful groups, it also meant messages could be honed to resonate with different personality types.

Imagine a group of undecided voters in a swing district. Are you a fearful type? Here’s a shadowy fella climbing through a kitchen window. A traditional type? Here’s a grandfather teaching a cute kid how to use a hunting rifle. Both approaches aim to nudge people towards a pro-gun Republican stance, but do it in ways that best resonate with the audience.

The campaign used sponsored Facebook posts, pinpoint-targeted right down to individual streets and even buildings. The individual messages were tested and refined in real time too, constantly optimised to make the biggest impact on voters. And according to this recent article that may give you nightmares, it looks like AI was used to super-charge the whole process, pumping the handcart to Hell even faster than anyone ever thought possible.

Of course, anything Trump-related can seem instantly sinister. And it really doesn’t help that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica looks like Tom Hiddlestone auditioning for the role of an IT nerd arch-villain in an X-Men film. Or that Steve Bannon, Trump’s deeply creepy strategy guy, is on the company’s board.

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

But perhaps the techniques themselves are just a long-overdue step forward in targeted advertising. For years, we’ve been told that online advertising allows for hugely intelligent targeting of audiences. But still, most banners and the like seem comically dumb. “Aha, you’ve just bought a laptop. You are clearly someone who likes buying laptops. I will keep feeding you laptop ads. Even though you won’t need another laptop for at least five years.”

So while the Cambridge Analytica approach can appear downright dystopian in the political context, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in consumer advertising.

Will targeting people based on their psychometric profile create more powerful ads for everyday things like cars, trainers, chocolate and pensions? Or does it only really work in areas where emotions run as high as in the recent US elections?

Either way, I’m expecting my first brief from a psychometric AI planner-bot any day soon.

Hillary Trumped

Did you see Hillary Clinton’s TV ads? They were powerful stuff. Simple and honed, mercilessly hammering the opponent’s weak spot: all those crazy things Trump kept saying on the campaign trail.

What was striking about the ads was the simplicity and bravery of the approach. Often they seemed to feature little except the words themselves, with only a minimal touch to emphasise just how horrendous the sentiments were – and how far the candidate was from what you’d expect from a political leader.

The young women looking in the mirror:

The young children watching the TV:

The veteran doing the same:

It reminded me of the ‘shot on iPhone 6’ campaign.

What’s the best way to demonstrate just how good the camera is? Put real photos up there on the billboard. Let them do the work and demonstrate the truth. There’s no need to spoil it by doing anything else. Just repeat, repeat, repeat until the message is plain to see and impossible to dismiss.

In a similar way, what’s the best way to demonstrate how unsuitable your opponent is for high political office? Show all the awful stuff he’s said in public. No need for editing or trickery. Just play it back and let him disqualify himself, again and again.

I was really impressed by the ads. I thought it was a properly powerful political campaign. And 60 million Americans may well have agreed – but clearly not the 60 million who mattered on the day.

Perhaps the problem was that Clinton needed to connect with voters who actually liked many of the things Trump was saying. The more outrageous his statements, the more popular he became.

So in hindsight, maybe a campaign that amplified all the things he said may not have been the smartest move…


Blogging on

Back in the day, the only way to hear directly from some of the best creatives around would have been to actually work in the same agency as them. Or better still, find out which pub they preferred to work from.

But even if you were talented and lucky enough to work alongside the greats, the chances are they’d have barely acknowledged you. The egos, like the budgets and pay packets, were considerably bigger back then.

They certainly wouldn’t have shared their thoughts, anxieties and insights with you on a daily basis. Except maybe in that pub, just before closing time.

But fast-forward to now and things are very different. While those creatives might still be as unforthcoming in the flesh, look online and it’s another story.

Today, ad blogs give you weirdly intimate access to all sorts of people with all sorts of different experiences and perspectives.

And because they’re usually by copywriters, the blogs tend to be very well written. Some of them are even funny.

Here are the ones I keep up with:

Stuff from the loft An anomaly on this list, I think: this is a blog written by an art director. The stories he digs out and the people he features are often amazingly good. He’s not at all prolific (maybe because he’s busy being the Head of Art at JWT), so it’s always a pleasure to click on the bookmark and discover a new post has appeared on the site.

Round Seventeen A grade-A grump who lives in LA and often pumps out two posts a day while doing the rounds as a busy freelancer. Definitely the funniest blogger on this list.

Dave Trott Having been a successful CD for ages and ages, he’s now become one of the most accomplished ad bloggers around. Often fascinating and pithy, the blog is written in that single-line highly digestible style. The stories are often so good, it’s one of the few ad blogs that would probably interest people outside the industry.

If this is a blog… An English creative who did well over here and then went over there to be a creative director at Apple’s in-house-agency-thingy. He was the CD behind the Shot on iPhone 6 campaign. The blog covers all sorts of subjects with an unusual degree of thoughtfulness, plus there’s always a Friday round-up of weird and wonderful links.

Ad Aged A self-confessed old guy from the old school, clearly less than enamoured with the way advertising has developed. But it’s not all whining and wailing about an industry past its sell by date. Just recently, he linked to some of the best things I’ve seen in a while. Firstly, this lovely film about the VW ads of old. And then, a link to the new VR app for the New York Times. Have a look for yourself – download the app to your smartphone and then watch the VR film about Fallujah. It really is a disconcertingly direct way to experience ‘the news’.

Ad Contrarian Probably the most celebrated and influential ad blogger out there. As the name suggests, he’s a spiky bugger who loves picking fights – and loves it even more when he’s proved right. The success of the blog has helped him build a new career as a conference speaker and consultant on some of his pet topics – like the idiocy of blowing every marketing budget on young people when it’s the older generation that’s sitting on all the lovely cash.

Ad Teachings Many of the above are jeremiads – complaints from older guys who’ve been there, done it, and have a pretty good take on why things aren’t what they used to be. But Ad Teachings is a different kettle of fish. It’s written by a woman for one thing. And rather than exploring all the ways we’re going to hell in a handcart, this blog simply posts good examples of ads around the world that students and young pros will find useful and instructive. Guess what? Not-so-young pros find it useful and instructive, too. And a bit heartening as well.

So them’s my top blogs. Any to add?

;) or ;(?

I’m always surprised how many people misuse semicolons. I’ve even worked with talented writers who get them wrong as often as right. But rather than telling everyone to smarten up and learn how to use them properly, I suggest we’d all be better off just forgetting they ever existed.

For one thing, they aren’t very useful.

A common mistake is to assume they’re like sloppy commas or sloppy full stops. Something inbetween-ish and flexible that you can use as you wish, wherever, whenever, however.

But they’re not. That’s a dash – the sloppiest, loveliest, most useful punctuation mark of all. I love dashes. I love dashes so much I have to ration myself. In fact, the first thing I usually do when editing my copy is decide which ones will survive the cull.

Nope, a semicolon is nowhere near as good as a dash. It has pretty prescribed uses, none of them actually that useful. Off the top of my head (and yes, I really should Google this, but where’s the fun in knowing you’re definitely right?) there are just two official uses for the semicolon.

Plus a third, unofficial, one.

The first use is quite simple to grasp, and also quite rare to actually put into practice. It’s the one you were taught and then quickly forgot at school: the ungainly list of long things. Instead of using commas to separate the items in a list, you use semicolons when the list is made up of longer phrases.

The breakfast options are: bacon, egg and toast; bacon, egg, toast and beans; and bacon, tomato, egg, toast and beans.

The point of the semicolon here is simply to separate the items, marking the main breaks between them from all the mini-breaks that might pop up in a really dense, clause-heavy list.

That’s the simple use. Kind of useful, but not earth-shatteringly so. It’s like a slightly less clear bullet point.

The second official use is far subtler. You use a semicolon to counterpoise two related clauses and invite the reader to infer the exact nature of that relationship. If that sounds very niche, it is.

It had been days since I’d eaten anything; the cakes smelt like heaven.

The bank had run out of cash; the chairman announced a new share scheme for employees.

I can’t think of a similarly subtle type of punctuation. Jane Austen used them to devastating effect, I’m sure. But today? If the semicolon didn’t exist, I doubt we’d really need to invent it.

And of course, if some writers don’t know how to use a semicolon, how many readers know how to read one? Very few, I suspect.

So the case is pretty strong for just abandoning the semicolon altogether. But before we do, I have a confession to make. As well as the two official uses, there is the third unofficial use. One that can be very handy in certain circumstances.

Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

I wager most copywriters have been in situations where showing you’ve been to college is very useful indeed. In fact, I suspect most of the semicolons I’ve ever used have appeared in the first paragraph – and most likely the very first sentence. There’s something reassuringly erudite about a semicolon, and I’m certainly not above deploying one in a fix.

But perhaps the final word on the semicolon should go to Irvine Welsh. He may not shed a great deal of light, but he does score top marks for getting so sweary about it all:

I use it. I’ve no feelings about it – it’s just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of shite, do they? I don’t fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.

What do you think? Could he be one of those writers who don’t actually know how to use one? I’m not asking him…

It’s food and drink


I doubt many epiphanies have been had in Woolwich Crown Court, an unlovely building in south-east London that’s ominously located next to HM Prison Belmarsh. Apart from, “Oh bugger, I’m not going to get away with this one”, epiphanies are unlikely in such drab and severe surroundings. But there was at least one. I know because I experienced it.

Every day of my jury service I winced as I walked past the posters and POS paraphernalia for the resident catering company. That strapline. Every time I saw it, I marvelled at it for different reasons. Who asked for it? Who wrote it? How long did they take doing it? What the hell were they thinking? Were they pleased with it?

And why did they even think they even needed one? After all, there was nothing else for miles around except a Tesco and a McDonald’s, and they were both on the other side of airport-style security hassle you’d expect in a court that does a lot of terrorism trials. We jurors were the second most captive audience in the area.

But try somebody did. And plaster it on absolutely everything somebody else did. And that was the mystery I pondered each time I walked past, or sat slack-jawed in the dining area.

Then after a few weeks of the trial, I came to a realisation. As stinky-awful as the line surely is, it had made me think more about the nature of straplines than any of the good or even brilliant ones I’ve admired as a copywriter.

I started to see it in a different light. Although it was unmistakably bad, it wasn’t all bad. It actually has many of the features of a very good strapline. It’s short and to the point. It uses everyday language. It’s clearly related to the core offering. And yes, it pretty much covers every aspect of that offering. The food division and the drink division were both going to be happy with it.

But what about all the things that are missing? The things that make a strapline a ‘Naughty but nice’, a ‘Vorsrprung durch Technik’ or a ‘Because you’re worth it’. An idea, an angle, some charm. A flash of inspired thinking that makes you smile and helps the brand connect to people’s lives. It’s rare that you see a line with so little of it. But you do see it more clearly when it’s not there at all.

And then on the way home that day, I realised the same was true more generally. There’s often only so much you can learn from truly great ads. Any lessons tend to be fairly oblique because great ideas are by their nature one-offs. But bad ads? They really are the gifts that keep giving. I saw this on the train platform:


Which I suspect tells you more about good layout and telling a compelling story than any book of design best practice.

And I saw this:


Which tells you plenty about how an idea can look good on paper, but end up being confusing in execution. Even with a unicorn.

It all reminded me of a lesson at school. An English teacher had the pleasure of introducing Poetry to the class. We had studied poetry before, but never Poetry. Suddenly a form which had been treated as little more than limericks was being held up as worthy of long and frankly baffling study.

I can imagine the sea of faces the teacher must have seen. Squinting, frowning faces, cocked at quizzical angles. All slowly drooping as the lesson progressed.

The more indifferent the reception, the more insistent the teacher was that we admire the skill and art involved. He might as well have been teaching us didgeridoo appreciation. Maybe after many hours of exposure to the art of didgeridoo, I might be able to spot a master at work. But straight away? No, I think not.

So I made a suggestion. Why not show us some bad poetry first? Then we’d know the difference when he showed us the good stuff. You can’t argue with the logic. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the teacher probably didn’t have a handy book of bad poetry to teach from.

However, we do all have the advertising equivalent. In fact, we’re surrounded by it. We’ve all heard the statistic about being subjected to several thousand marketing messages per day. At least several thousand of them will be pretty terrible.

But I’d argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, that a bad thing can be a good thing.