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Why the Cambridge Analytica story is a warning to Sky

Over the past week or so, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have barely been out of the news. The central thrust of the story is that people consented to share information with Facebook and apps hosted on Facebook, which has then been used to target advertisements. It is claimed that these targeted advertisements influenced the US Presidential Election and the UK’s EU membership referendum. Despite frequent uses of phrases like “hack” and “data breach” in the news coverage, none of this actually involved anything other than use of information for which people had given consent—but the consent may not have been truly informed consent, because people simply clicked “Agree” without reading. (This old story, in which users of free wifi universally agreed to hand over their eldest child in exchange for internet access, feels relevant here.)

To anyone interested in technology, nothing in this story is particularly surprising, and I think its fair to characterise most of the tech press as struggling to cover it. Even Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist credited with highlighting this story, reportedly sees herself as a feature writer who translated something well-known among the well-informed into a story with mass appeal, rather than uncovering anything new.

To me, that the adverts on Facebook feeds are not randomly chosen seems self-evident. And yet, there is plenty of evidence that many people don’t even recognise adverts in their Facebook feeds, let alone wonder how they were chosen. The coverage of Cambridge Analytica seems to suggest that many users are agape at the revelation that Facebook adverts exist and are targeted at users. In some quarters, the anger at Facebook is offset by the fact that the service is free to use and “has to make money somehow”.

If I were an investor in Sky, I would be worried right now. Unbeknown, I suspect, to the vast majority of its users, Sky targets TV ads via a platform called AdSmart. Sky boxes download adverts overnight and then play back commercials targeted at households in ad breaks. Or, as they put it,

With Sky AdSmart different ads can be shown to different households watching the same programme.

Sky uses an enormous amount of probabilistic data on subscriber households to enable this targeting, including everything from household income, the age of cars owned by household members, the month of renewal of insurance policies, the pets owned by householders, whether subscribers are pregnant, and even the compass direction in which the householder’s garden faces. Sky promotes this to advertisers as an

in-depth knowledge of Sky households … There are thousands of combinations to choose from when selecting the audience that sees your ad. Households can be selected based on factors such as age, location, life style or even if they have a cat … allowing advertisers to cherry-pick their audiences.

If people don’t expect targeted advertising on a platform where they proactively share much of their life, then I suspect that they are even less expectant of being profiled and targeted with advertising while they are catching up on the latest soaps. While folk post about their cats on Facebook with alarming frequency, I think many people would be upset to learn that Sky knows whether they own a pet, let alone that this knowledge is used to show them relevant TV ads. And, of course, users pay Sky hefty subscription fees each month, negating the “has to make money somehow” mitigation.

Nobody can claim that Sky is anything other than open about AdSmart, and I am quite certain that they will have legally compliant consent from subscribers as part of the terms and conditions of their service. But all of that is also true of targeted advertising on Facebook. To me, AdSmart feels intuitively like a programme ripe for “exposure” through a talented journalist like Carole Cadwalladr. While the press has less of an incentive to attack Sky than it does to attack Facebook, I would be worried if I were Sky.


The picture at the top is based on an original posted on Flickr by Sarah Joy. I’ve modified it and used it here under its Creative Commons licence. The Sky AdSmart picture in the middle is a promotional image owned by Sky Group, used here under the ‘fair dealing’ exception to copyright law.

This 2,422nd post was filed under: News and Comment, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , .

Confused by a billboard

This ad has been here for years, and always bemuses me. Why advertise a Leeds newspaper in Newcastle? Why would a newspaper report on private individuals’ nefarious activities?

I’m sure there’s some (probably football related) subtext that completely passes me by.

This 1,444th post was filed under: Photos, , , , .

Gateshead billboard hostage stunt

To promote their new website, the advertising company SA Group staged a bizarre stunt in which they dangled a person in front of a billboard during rush hour last week. It caught my eye as I drove past, and I ended up Googling the company involved. Here cometh the company’s video of the stunt:

.swf?clip_id=13934926&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0″ />.swf?clip_id=13934926&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0″ allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”>

“>Billboard Corruption PR Stunt from 37″>SA Group on Vimeo.

Yes, I know that the stunt has got me talking about and linking to the company and so in that sense has been a success, but I can’t help thinking that their Press Release about the event will ruffle a few feathers.

You’ll note their headline – “Newcastle Billboard Stunt” – and their claim that

Known as billboard corruption www.sagroupuk.com targeted rush hour traffic with a head turning billboard message supported with a live kidnap stunt where a person was suspended from the top of a billboard in Newcastle City Centre.

All very well, except for the minor fact that this happened in Gateshead, not Newcastle, and next to the B1600, not exactly the city centre of either Gateshead or Newcastle. They’re based in the North East themselves, so surely they know the difference?

And given that my attention wasn’t exactly focused on the poster’s logo, when I came to Google the stunt, it was very difficult to find any information as to who the advertiser was – as I naturally wasn’t searching for “Newcastle City Centre”, since it happened in a different city. Even substituting the city for Newcastle, only the narrowest possible search terms bring up any results – and then we’re talking about the above Vimeo video, rather than the company’s own site.

I’m sure their “billboard corruption” makes for wonderful PR, but these guys really need to work on their web approach. I don’t know whether they bought some AdWords nearer the time and I just missed the campaign, but surely I’m not the only one looking this up a couple of days later.

So, in summary: Eye catching stunt, geography and web strategy need some serious work.

This 1,423rd post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , , , .

Why does the Government think we’re all stupid?

Oh, please...I’ve been intending to post for ages on the subject of patronising, irritating, and most certainly excessive Government advertising. I have found recently that it’s impossible to watch a single commercial TV programme without seeing at least one Government funded advert, whether it be for direct.gov, the road safety Think! campaign, the NHS Stop Smoking campaign, car tax renewals, Fire Kills, the Know Your Limits alcohol campaign, the ubiquitous Change4Life, the Act FAST stroke campaign, Act on CO2, the Food Imports campaign, the irritatingly clever Get On ads, or any one of the miriad campaigns the Government is funding at any one time. Listening to the radio is worse. And even Spotify has been invaded.

Government posters are everywhere – the recent slightly threatening Policing Pledge ones are spreading like a rash, but my personal favourite is the Food Standards Agency one shown here. Apparently, choosing something with fewer saturated fats helps me reduce my saturated fat intake. Well, duh.

These adverts are even invading cash machines. I’d never really noticed cash manchine adverts before – are they new? – until one had an NHS advert on it, with someone sneezing in my face.

But all of this came to a head yesterday. Whilst wandering round Eldon Square, I found no fewer than three government supported advertising stands. One was for Change4Life, there was one advertising the local NHS Walk-in Centre, and one talking about reducing CO2. All in the same shopping centre, at the same time.

This is nannyism taken to another level.

What on Earth is the cost of all of this manifest advertising? It surely must be huge.  Now no-one in their right mind would argue with some of the campaigns – fire safety is important, the Act FAST campaign is a major attempt to get people to re-think stroke, and road safety is in everyone’s interest. But there’s a difference between informing the public and forcibly ramming things down their throat.

The Conservatives have posited Government advertising as one of the big areas in which they can reduce waste. Frankly, the sooner they get the chance, the better.

This 1,392nd post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Politics, .


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