I recently watched a Netflix documentary called ‘The Great Hack’. Some of you will probably have seen it or at least will have been presented it in your feeds – thanks algorithms. For those that haven’t, it’s an excellent and gripping film about Cambridge Analytica and their nefarious dealings in social manipulation for Trump and Brexit.

The doco takes you behind the scenes and into the lives of ex-employees and whistleblowers, as well as revealing the extent of their data enrichment programs and behavioral change capabilities. It’s nothing short of fascinating and terrifying all at once.

The Great Hack: Netflix
The Great Hack: Netflix

Beyond the data though, there were the far more disturbing strategies that sat behind the technology; the manipulation and behavioral tactics these agents use to swing elections and influence voter mindsets.

The documentary, for example, features a case where social media was used to create an anti-vote movement amongst Trinidanian Youth – this powerful uprising tapped into an apathetic generation and quickly swelled.

In the film, Cambridge Analytica says it worked for “the Indians” – implying they worked on behalf of the majority-Indian United National Congress (UNC) party. According to the film, the inaction of this voter segment meant a 6% swing was achieved in what was considered to be a neck and neck race. This weakness was exploited through an anonymous Dark Side strategy that exploited fake news, privacy data and misdirected public sentiment.

These, of course, are the tools of politics, the Dark Side strategies that political strategists employ to not only activate advocacy amongst supportive bases but to also disrupt and nullify oppositions. These are the same forces that influenced Brexit, and Trump’s win.

Which got me thinking about advertising. Because from where I sit, it seems that the majority of advertising strategy is what I would call ‘Light Side’ or tactics and messages designed to persuade apathetic or casual buyers to buy a brand over another. There is very little by way of Dark Side strategy, actively discrediting another brand or rendering their audience impotent.

There are of course some exceptions and even some famous public stoushes, but for the most part, I think advertisers play a pretty fair and above board game. There are few instances I could readily think of where Dark Side strategy is central to a brand’s ongoing strategy or if they do exist, there’s a very good reason they are invisible.

I would suggest there are some examples of ‘Grey side strategies’ about; the famous Mac v. PC comparisons, for example, which threw shade at a competitor in a funny way. Or much more seriously, the infamous research and medical propaganda of the tobacco industry, which for years waged war against the medical community and its warnings about the dangers of smoking.

So why don’t more brands consider Dark Side approaches?

There could be a number of reasons. Perhaps brands don’t want to be seen as manipulative or risk brand damage. Maybe marketing leaders are inherently good and not Dark Side inclined or perhaps budgets don’t allow the exploration of concurrent strategies. And there’s one more possibility, maybe those responsible for strategy have just not yet really considered it.

I’m open to the Dark-Side (at least as a thought experiment).

Andrew Reeves, Communications Director, The Royals