It’s not paranoia if every studio is actually out to get you

Because of how fast news cycles move in 2018 and that any given day brings at least four Things That Didn’t Seem Possible just two years ago it might be hard to remember that news about Cambridge Analytica and its unauthorized use of data gathered from Facebook broke just two weeks ago.

Putting the political angle on this story to the side, the revelations that have come to light have put a bright hot light on an aspect of the online world marketers and advertisers were fine keeping out of view, namely the narrow-targeting of online ads that’s possible through audience profiling. By using various tools and systems, advertisers can make sure their messages are seen by people who fit a certain mold, one that for whatever reason is more likely to respond favorably to the pitch being made.

The Facebook/Cambridge news was huge because everyone either uses Facebook or is tracked by its ad network software on other sites. The implications and relevance were apparent to vast swaths of the population immediately. That news came just a couple weeks after a smaller-scale controversy momentarily rocked the movie industry and had it engaging in a debate over user tracking not unlike what’s happening now.

Earlier this month MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe made comments about how the potential existed for the app, which allows you to pay a flat fee and in exchange see one movie in theaters every day for a month, to greatly expand the audience tracking it did. By logging people’s movements and activities both before and after going to the theater it would be able to build extensive profiles of its users. At the time he stipulated that data wasn’t going to be sold to advertisers but would be used to better target ads displayed on the site/app. Lowe later walked back his comments, saying the app wasn’t doing that *now* and only gathered data when they were actually using it at the theater.

Those ads were to a great extent coming from movie theaters and studios. MoviePass signed deals with exhibitors and producers in February to push their messages to the app’s 2 million users, all of whom are assumed to be huge movie fans and therefore be interested in these messages. That deal apparently gave them the confidence needed to play a little hardball by blocking access to tickets for the Jennifer Lawrence spy drama Red Sparrow in some markets. The reasons behind that blockage were unexplained but speculation ran that the app wanted to pressure 20th Century Fox to buy advertising.

As the kids these days say, the main problem with Lowe’s comments is that he said the quiet part out loud. It’s not that no one knew their behavior was being tracked by any number of apps and services, it’s that no one is supposed to say so quite so bluntly. It’s knowledge that’s supposed to remain in the background, lest the mass number of people freak out at the privacy they’ve signed away in exchange for discounts and targeted offers. That’s what we’re seeing right now in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica news.

MoviePass is by no means the only company looking to target ads at moviegoers by digging into data that goes beyond the profiles people have filled out when signed up for new apps or services. A few other recent examples:

STX Entertainment signed on to test Snapchat ads that used data – including offline purchase behavior – pulled from Oracle Data Cloud to target an audience they “know visits movie theaters.” The studio also worked directly with Facebook on various movie campaigns to see how they could best target key audiences and what content forms worked best.

EuropaCorp and media agency Carat partnered with automatic content recognition (ACR) company Alphonso and advertising transaction platform Tremor Video to gain insights into who views ads for the drama Miss Sloane and how many then converted into ticket buyers.

Viacom recently signed a deal with data analytics firm Movio to feed that company’s audience information into Viacom’s own Vantage data tool in order to effectively target movie ads across platforms.

Both DoubleClick and Twitter have case studies on their sites touting the successes enjoyed by studios that have engaged in targeted, data-driven advertising on their platforms. Facebook has a couple of its own as well, one for Paddington 2 and one for Girls Trip.

IBM has a sponsored feature on The Atlantic’s website that promotes the potential for data-driven movie advertising using its resources.

There are plenty more examples, just as there would be for any industry we cared to look at. Targeted advertising is only going to grow as 1) targeting technology becomes more advanced, especially as artificial intelligence becomes more widely used, and 2) media consumption becomes more on-demand and personalized. In other words, when the same company makes the content you consume, the platform your consume it through and the device you consume it on, the potential amount of data available is nearly infinite, as is the ability to dig into that data.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story may be a big example of how tracking is used to psychologically engineer an audience in the direction of an action or point of view, but there are countless other instances of this happening every day across media. Some have repercussions felt throughout society because they’ve impacted the very heart of democracy. Others are designed to influence what movie you choose on Saturday night. The difference is in the scope, not the tactics.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Written by Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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