World News

Long Before Cambridge Analytica, a Belief in the ‘Power of the Subliminal’

Posted April 20, 2018 8:27 p.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2018 8:31 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Nearly three decades ago, an ambitious young London advertising executive named Nigel Oakes fell out with his partners, two psychologists, over a central claim of his new business: That using the tools of social science, he could plant motivations in a person’s brain without their knowledge, prompting them to behave as a client wished.

The psychologists considered his claims unscientific, and severed the relationship. “He wanted to exaggerate what was possible to do using psychology,” said Barrie Gunter, one of the psychologists. Adrian Furnham, the other, said Oakes was convinced of “that mystical, incredible power of the subliminal.”

For years, Oakes kept trying, convinced he was on to something. But there was no breakthrough until the United States and its allies occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and began looking for contractors to win “hearts and minds.” The ad man rebranded himself as a psychological operations specialist, founder of an organization called Strategic Communication Laboratories, and money started to flow.

Today, Oakes’ SCL Group — which spawned many smaller companies, including the political consultancy company Cambridge Analytica — is at the center of a trans-Atlantic scandal over data mining and voter manipulation. Investigators have focused on Alexander Nix, the former chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, who spearheaded efforts to use personal data scraped from social media in political campaigns.

Oakes, whose firm has held defense contracts with the British and U.S. governments, has stayed studiously in the background. He was a star witness in absentia this week at a parliamentary hearing in London, when an academic shared recordings of him speaking admiringly of the oldest and simplest way of shaping public opinion: stirring up resentment toward a minority group.

Adolf Hitler “didn’t have a problem with the Jews at all, but people didn’t like the Jews,” he told the academic, Emma L. Briant, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Essex. He went on to say that Donald Trump had done the same thing by tapping into grievances toward immigrants and Muslims.

This sort of campaign, he continued, did not require bells and whistles from technology or social science.

“What happened with Trump, you can forget all the microtargeting and microdata and whatever, and come back to some very, very simple things,” he told Briant. “Trump had the balls, and I mean, really the balls, to say what people wanted to hear.”

Oakes did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica endeavored to distance the company from Oakes and his comments, saying he “never had any role at Cambridge Analytica, has never worked for Cambridge Analytica and did not work on the Trump campaign in any way whatsoever.”

The company said his comments were made “in a personal capacity about the historical use of propaganda to an academic he knew well from her work in the defense sphere.”

The hearings marked a sudden public exposure for Oakes, an upper-crust Englishman whose air of mystery was also a selling point: From its inception, the central promise of the SCL Group was to shape public opinion without being seen. Briant, who interviewed Oakes repeatedly for her book “Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change,” said she suspected that for Oakes, the hearings had been a painful experience.

“You need to bear in mind, these are powerful, arrogant men,” she said. “They think they own the world. I honestly think they thought they were invincible.” As a young man, Oakes cut a rakish figure. Raised in rural gentility — his father was once the high sheriff of Warwickshire — and educated at Eton, he had “a kind of smoothness and charm and charisma that you associate with people who have that kind of education,” his former colleague Gunter said.

After Eton, instead of continuing on to college, he embarked on a racy career as a disc jockey and music producer and dated Lady Helen Windsor, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and 40th in line to the throne.

The business idea he brought to the team of psychologists was “Marketing Aromatics,” a service that pumped in fragrances — of pine trees, the ocean, or new-mown grass — on the principle that “smells can influence attitudes and therefore behavior.” Oakes was “a young man in a hurry,” under pressure to repay his investors, said Gunter, of the department of mass communications at the University of Leicester.

He was also anxious over his lack of a university diploma, pressing the professors to suggest a “short cut” that would save him years of study. “He was what the English would call economical with the truth,” said Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London.

They parted ways, the younger man intent on building a company with a strong research component, Gunter said, “designed in such a way that if the client wanted, it could be used to influence the subject and make them do something.”

That company was Strategic Communication Laboratories, and its new targets — procurement officials in the U.S. and British militaries, and politicians in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — were more responsive. Oakes was able to leverage his aristocratic background, attracting a list of prominent people, like Jonathan Marland, a member of the British House of Lords and former treasurer of the Conservative Party, as shareholders in his venture. Marland said he was steered by a private equity form to invest around $70,000 in the company, which he said was “set up to give people security and military advice.”

An element of what Oakes offered his clients was dirty tricks. In 2000, Jeremy Wagstaff, an investigative journalist, encountered Oakes as an adviser to the president of Indonesia at the time, Abdurrahman Wahid. Oakes was paid $300,000 in cash for a two-month campaign, Wagstaff said. It was heavy on optics, featuring “a Tom Clancy-style ops center with lots of screens and people beavering away at computers.”

“The money was changing hands in U.S. cash in sports bags, so it was a somewhat unusual arrangement,” he said.

Oakes abruptly left Indonesia after Wagstaff reported in The Wall Street Journal that he had paid several thousand dollars to a nongovernmental journalist’s organization, falsely claiming it was from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and that the organization had then put out statements beneficial to Wahid. Oakes denied claiming the money came from USAID.

By then, Oakes was pivoting to counterterrorism, presenting a more sophisticated option for “hearts and minds” campaigns than the blunt propaganda offered by public relations firms and ad companies, Briant said.

“This pseudointellectual, academic approach, it looked really good,” Briant said. “You are creating a situation in which behavior will change. That idea underpins a lot of what they have developed since.”

By 2012, Strategic Communication Laboratories was a trusted partner of Britain’s Defense Ministry, included on the “X list” of companies “cleared to routine access to UK secret information.” It was also providing training for Britain’s 15th Psychological OperationsGroup, according to documents released this month by Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee.

When Briant last met Oakes for an interview, late last year, he was in an expansive, boastful mood. Oakes praised Nix, his younger colleague, for expanding the company’s electoral work swiftly, making it into “a very successful commercial entity.” But he credited himself with the big ideas behind the firm’s work.

“If he’s the Steve Jobs, I’m the Steve Wozniak,” he said, referring to the inventor who built the Apple computer. “I’m the sort of guy who wants to get the engineering right, and he’s the guy who wants to sell the flashy box.” He rolled his eyes a little at the controversy that had built up around Cambridge Analytica’s advance work for a pro-Brexit campaign, a role which he said Nix had inflated for commercial reasons.

Yes, the company had been branded as using “pretty unethical ways of achieving their results,” he acknowledged to Briant. But on the bright side, he said, this was exactly what many clients were looking for.

“People coming to us are not ethical,” he continued. “I mean, frequently people come to us and say we’ve got so many dirty tricks against us, we now need to know the dirty tricks to go back. Or we need to know how to counter the dirty tricks and you guys seem to know how to do it.”