The reason for the hype is because they provided highly specialised audience segmentation and communication services to both the leave campaign (Leave.EU) and Donald Trump.
The video above, featuring Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix talking about how their technology and strategy helped Ted Cruz fight an impressive primary campaign, is a brilliant synopsis of why and how campaigns are using data to improve their chances of winning elections.
There has been some discussion as to whether or not they “got lucky” and are “bullshitting opportunists”; I would assert neither but I’m yet to be convinced that they – or any other campaign – are using the technology to the extent that some of the hype implies.
It is common sense to say that the more you know about the drivers of someone’s decision-making, the more able you will be to communicate in a way that will be persuasive to them.
And it’s certainly true to say that big data, digital communication channels and new advertising production techniques now mean that we have the ability to speak to ever smaller segments of the electorate using bespoke communications designed to be particularly persuasive to them.
However, I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the segments which campaigns are targeting are as granular as some of the excited discussion around this topic suggests.
The segmentation that Cambridge Analytica use divides people into 32 psychographic groups and then overlays other behavioural data around propensity to vote and support for particular issues.
Are campaigns, such as Leave.EU and Donald Trump, creating bespoke advertisements to cater for the thousands of possible voter segments that such a model could create?
I don’t think so.
Indeed both the Trump and the Brexit campaigns are notable for the fact that their creative advertising output was low in volume in comparison to their opponents.
(It must be noted that, given the nature of the discreet targeting, I would only see adverts that are created specifically for me, so the only way to know for sure would be to see the archives of the campaigns’ universe of messaging)
But are campaigning techniques like this already being implemented – albeit at a more basic level – and do they represent an important aspect of the future of political advertising?