A ‘Beautiful’ reminder of how ugly adland’s thirst for data can be

—Social media has caused many marketers (and their agencies) to become addicted to consumer data. But at what cost, asks Craig Redmond—

She was lucky. Our daughter was introduced to social media when it was in its infancy. And still innocent, just like her.

It was a place where people connected, new friendships were formed, and old ones rekindled. Where stories were shared. Photos liked. Happy birthdays wished.

And then, by the time social media had turned dark, she was old enough to recognize its dangers and be wary, to not fall prey to its predators. Like I said, our kid was lucky. The generation of children behind her, however, was not.

It began with greed, although the other deadly sins weren’t far behind. Because after years of being ridiculed for not being able to monetize the book of face, Mark Zuckerberg and his internet alchemists discovered the formula they needed to make his platform—and every other place of social media worship that followed—a viably commercial business model.

They realized they could mine, refine, and design a new digital opioid called data.

And by selling that personal data, it meant that clients could not only buy cheap advertising space, but they could target their messages down to the exact neuron in their consumer’s head that might trigger purchase intent.

What followed was the digital opioid crisis. Marketers, ad agencies, business lobbyists, political campaigners, special interest group advocates, cult recruiters, scammers, hackers, and election espionage saboteurs all became hopelessly addicted to the intoxicating potential of human data.

And then, the distribution of that digital opioid exploded with the arrival of the pushers—or, as we like to call them, social media influencers. Every last mega, macro, micro and nano one of them.

Access to their spheres of influence, and the even purer data of their followers who were willingly or unknowingly surrendering their personal information was, for a data analyst, the same as a junkie stumbling into a private opium den.

Alas, on and on it goes.

And tragically, all of this has come at a tremendous cost. A cost far greater than the price per click or impression that advertisers are paying.

It’s the human toll paid by millions of young people who have forfeited their security, sacrificed their intimacy and, in a losing battle with self-doubt, abdicated their true personal identity.

So, I’d argue, that’s where we come in as ad agency guardians. Being trusted partners for our clients, and experts in all channels of marketing communications, we need to be the unyielding gatekeepers for their brands, and help them ensure they’re bringing absolutely no harm to anyone.

Yes, of course, we must continue to use data to customize our invaluable one-on-one conversations with consumers, but only with permission, and never at the price of someone’s mental health and emotional wellbeing—especially that of a child.

I doubt, in her worst nightmares, that Christina Aguilera could have ever imagined when she first performed “Beautiful” how infinitely more poignant and pertinent its message would be today, two decades later. But how hauntingly so it is.

The re-release of the song on its twentieth anniversary comes with a new video that explores its wretchedly escalating relevance. And whether you agree with me or not about our responsibility to safeguard against the potential harm of what we do with that drug called data, I urge you to take it upon yourselves to share this film with your colleagues, contemporaries and perhaps even your clients.

And if you do, please insist they watch it to the bloody end. If nothing else, it might just spark a conversation about what we do, why and how we do it—and, most importantly, to whom.

Craig Redmond