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Cambridge Analytica Weaponized Fashion Brands: What It Means For Retailers

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Yes, it’s true. Cyber warfare has come to fashion. It turns out that the now infamous political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica, the company that mined and misused information on 87 million Facebook users, took those users’ fashion brand preferences to help determine who was more likely to respond to pro-Trump and pro-Brexit messages.

I read it first in Business of Fashion (paywall), one of my favorite blogs. Apparently, Christopher Wylie, the former director of research for Cambridge Analytica and now famous whistleblower, revealed this information at VOICES, Business of Fashion’s annual “big thinker” gathering, which it runs in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

It certainly takes a “big thinker” to draw a correlation between liking Wrangler Jeans, L.L. Bean and having a propensity to vote for Donald Trump, but apparently, in general, they weren’t wrong. And their intentions were clear. Read the following quote from the Business of Fashion article:

“Wylie, a data mastermind who worked for Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon, a client of Cambridge Analytica, said the weapons the firm developed, like traditional munitions, were composed of payloads (narratives) and targeting systems (algorithms) but the battleground was virtual, and they were being deployed against ordinary citizens, not military assets.

“We were about to destroy the world together. I became Icarus and put on wax wings and flew into the sun,” said Wylie, recalling the unholy pact he forged with Bannon. “The difference between Facebook and the NSA is simple but profound,” he added. “The NSA’s targets are extremists, foreign spies… on Facebook you are the target.””

Now, this is a problem for so many reasons, I hardly know where to begin.

Certainly Facebook’s reputation is in tatters, along with its current stock price. The company turned a blind eye to some of these shenanigans, at the same time as the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, requested the company’s research staff to gather information on billionaire (and democrat) George Soros after he attacked Facebook and Google, calling them menaces to society. I have to say, this particularly disappointed me. Until now, I had the utmost respect for Ms. Sandberg and genuine sympathy for the loss of her husband at such a very, very young age. I admired the way she bounced back from tragedy.

I haven’t reached the place where Scott Galloway has gotten, calling for her firing, but I certainly am disappointed in her. I had high hopes for her as part of our country’s future. Now she looks like just another corporate flak.

But Facebook is its own thing. The impact of this weaponization is going to trickle down to retailers as well. Too much data is being gathered by too many entities, all of whom presume people “expect it.” And most of whom don’t have any real clue how to protect it. Well, in fact, we don’t expect it, regardless of our age, and no one likes to feel manipulated. So just as retailers are warming to the idea of “geofencing” and “proximity marketing” we are about to see a backlash from consumers who say “Leave me the heck alone. You’ve got enough information on me that you clearly don’t know how to protect already.” It didn’t help that a huge data breach (500 million customer records stolen!) at Marriott’s Starwood hotels was announced on the same day that Business of Fashion released its report.

It almost doesn’t matter anymore if payment information was included. What matters is, someone else got too much personal data without permission, and the company responsible for protecting it just…didn’t take care of it.

Do I think that Cambridge Analytica batted 1000 when it came to using fashion as a weapon? As someone who shops at LL Bean for sheets and pajamas, and who suddenly started receiving conservative newsletters a couple of years ago, I’d have to say, definitely not. If you know me, you know that I’m quite unlikely to be a Trump voter, and I had to spend a few months unsubscribing to all the junk (uh, sorry, news) I was getting from off-stream right-wing media.

But it does come back to a point we, at RSR have been trying to make for a long, long time. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do that thing….and any kind of analytics, scrutiny or tracking done without explicit permission are among those things you should not do.

It also answers partner Steve Rowen’s famous question, “What is the value of a “like”?” It seemed like the answer was “not much.” We were wrong.

NRF’s Big Show will be coming up next month. At that show, we will no doubt see lots of very cool technologies that could ultimately help retailers cater to shoppers’ tastes, or find new targets for marketing efforts. The technologies themselves are fine enough. Just remember, please, that it’s imperative to ask before you look. Take nothing for granted. Be cautious. Be respectful. Think of yourselves as the object of this scrutiny, not just the scrutinizer. How would you feel?

I guess this is my final advice to our readers for 2018. Information is a strategic asset. Make sure you ask before you start tracking anyone, and please, please, make sure you have done everything you can to protect that information once you have it. No one wants to see more privacy legislation, but that’s what’s going to happen if we don’t take good care. GDPR will seem like a cakewalk by comparison.

I wish you all an epic and profitable holiday season, and I look forward to seeing you in 2019. Hopefully it’s a lot less messy than 2018, while remaining profitable!

 

 


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Articles & Opinions December 4, 2018
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