The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) has been investigating research firm Cambridge Analytica, as a result of the developing stories surrounding it in regards to the 2016 US presidential election, The Drum has learned.
In 2017, the research firm won one of the ARF's David Ogilvy Awards, which honor companies, brands and agencies that take creative approaches to analytics, consumer insights and partnerships with creative teams. Cambridge had recieved a gold honor in the 'big data' category, pulling info from groups of undecided female voters in order to help Donald Trump win in November of the previous year.
Cambridge Analytica had been a topic of conversation for the past few weeks, due to its involvement with the Trump campaign and its malicious use of user data acquired through Facebook. As reported by The Intercept earlier this week (March 27), the ARF announced it would be be investigating the award it gave Cambridge in 2017 for its ‘Make America Number One’ campaign.
A press release from Cambridge celebrating its Ogilvy Award win featured a statement from then-senior vice president Emily Cornell: “Our team was able to identify a key group of undecided women voters in the final months leading up to the Election Day," she said, "which ultimately led to 'Can't Run Her House' – one of the most successful ads of the cycle."
On Wednesday’s second day of programming at the ConsumerXScience conference, ARF president Scott Macdonald chose to address the recent news directly. First citing his speech from the day before, he prefaced his discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s actions with his thoughts on facts and values. “Facts matter and the discovery of facts is our most important job as professional researchers," he said. "However, I ended by noting that facts are not the same as values, that while facts can be wrested from a complex universe by close observation and disciplined experiment, values can’t be “proven” in the same way as facts.
Turning his discussion of facts to the ongoing Cambridge discussion, McDonald said: “It might sound abstract and academic, but it was brought home to me last week by the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s purported deceptive acquisition of 50m Facebook profiles for use in the campaign to elect Donald Trump.“
“Despite the discomfort that many of the jurors and our members had with Cambridge Analytica, he continued, noting that many of the jurors may not have agreed with the presidential candidate, “jurors stuck to facts and awarded the recognition based upon our guidelines, and for that, they have my respect and admiration.
“Of course,” McDonald noted, “the Ogilvy jury could not have known, nor could the ARF have known, that the work being awarded that night might have been based on pilfered data to which CA had no legal right.” He stated that even though the decision was made within the known context, with the latest findings, “we are revisiting that decision. Clearly, if the allegations of illegal or deceptive practices are sustained by the inquiries underway, the ARF will formally rescind the award, on the grounds that the work did not, in retrospect, meet our standards and requirements.”
McDonald moved onto what he believed to be a “larger issue”: the less-than-stringent code of conduct it has for its own members, of which Cambridge (pending investigation) has been a member. “Though the ARF has at various times adapted elements of the codes of conduct developed by other research-oriented organizations,” said McDonald, “it has not developed its own code of conduct for the industry. This omission is particularly unfortunate because the very diversity of the ARF’s constituencies – including not only marketers, agencies, media companies, and research vendors, but also data vendors, ad tech and consultancies – puts us in a good position to think about the ethics of research and about data collection in a very broad context.”
Citing the EU’s establishment of GDPR, McDonald predicted that the US Government will probably enact similar legislation. “That may be a good thing,” said McDonald, “that ultimately works to the benefit of the entire advertising, data and research ecosystem if it restores the public’s trust. But external regulation can be clumsy and, in any case, we should be trying to solve some of these problems by better self-regulation.
He announced that the ARF is calling for development and establishment of guidelines and standards to govern consumer data collection and protection.” He invited members and trade organizations to not only contribute ideas, but “to work with their constituents to ensure adoption once developed.”
McDonald conceded that the actions of Cambridge Analytica “is not a shock or a surprise.” He added that it’s received attention in part for who it benefited, but added: “We did not need this incident to bring to light that in a fast evolving world of technological data collection, there are already many questionable practices going on.”
These questionable practices have forced the hand of brands like Sonos to temporarily pull their ads from Facebook, and for Elon Musk to pull the Facebook pages of SpaceX and Tesla. Whatsapp cofounder Brian Acton was among a group of significant names in the tech industry calling for consumers to #deletefacebook, reminiscent of those calling for Uber riders to delete their apps in recent months due to mounting scandals. Facebook, on its end, issued an apology online, and in full-page ads in UK and US newspapers
Google Maps or Waze were cited by McDonald cited as examples of apps that show “clear consumer benefit” and to use personal data. However, McDonald continued: “that doesn’t mean that the consumer has knowingly permitted Google Maps or Waze to sell their data to everyone else willing to pay.
“Ask any consumer if they know why their free flashlight app needs permission to access their GPS, microphone or address book,” said McDonald, adding, “They may not fully know, and they don’t remember giving the permission; but we know full well what is going on and what the business model is of that flashlight app.”
McDonald called out the questions the ARF and its members should be asking: “What ethical guidelines guide the use of “secondary data” collected for some other purpose, but now used for research? What responsibility do researchers have to ensure that the data they are using were collected legally, without any deception? What rights do consumers have to know about and approve the uses to which their data are put? What obligations do researchers have to protect consumers from harm that might come from the misuse of their data? What ethical guidelines should govern profiling and highly-targeted communications?”
The head of the ARF announced a town hall with market researcher database Greenbook and the American Marketing Association on April 26, with the goal of forming a group that will draft the mentioned code of conduct. All the proceedings, he said, will be available for livestream—a transparency move most recently seen within the US ad community during the Ad Club of New York’s Facebook Live viewing of its Andy Awards.
“The consumer is our partner,” finished McDonald, adding, “We need consumer data to advance the needs of our industry. But to continue to have the right to access that data we must demonstrate respect for our partner, and value to a greater extent the courtesy our partner has extended us. In doing so, we will not only enhance our business, but fulfill the responsibility of ethical and respectful behavior that is the foundation of this or any relationship.”
The ARF said that a decision into the investigation would be 'forthcoming,' but only after conducting several fact-finding activities to sort through allegations and denials and recieves the benefit of the outcome, it will be polling the jurors that awarded the recognition. The organization said it wants to ensure "that a reasoned decision is made with due process, in accordance with the manner in which research is conducted, and not a rash one based upon the emotions of the current environment."