What Advertising History Says About the Future of Fake News

Posted May 25, 2018 5:26 p.m. EDT

Jordan Peele, the comedian turned horror-movie director, recently made a video meant to give American voters shivers of dread.

It showed President Barack Obama giving a speech he never gave, and uttering sentences he didn’t actually say. The video demonstrated how easy it is to use current technology to create powerful and persuasive lies, now also known as fake news.

When this video magic is coupled with the ability of companies like Facebook to micro-target each of us and select the news we see, the implications for the future of our democracy seem dire. Fake news and microtargeting can be combined to create a kind of advertising that’s like an evil version of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and we are being exposed to more of these pernicious morsels every year.

But two lessons from the history of advertising suggest that the fake news phenomenon is likely to change significantly. Prospects are gloomy for the near future, as this kind of advertising extends beyond politics. History also suggests, though, that the danger will probably recede over time as people grow accustomed to the ads, which will cease to work as effectively.

First, in all likelihood, fake news will spread, despite efforts to rein it in. So far, most attention has focused on efforts to meddle in U.S. elections. That is no small threat.

Yet, based on the historical record, far more effort goes into persuading Americans to buy things than to elect politicians.

By one estimate, U.S. political campaigns will spend an estimated $8 billion on advertising in 2018. But it is likely to be less than one twenty-fifth of total advertising spending for the year, and new technologies are likely to be deployed more frequently on consumers than voters.

We are already seeing technology being used to shade the truth in advertising that targets consumers.

I did a Google search for “best inflatable kayak” and was confronted by a blend of results that can be hard for a consumer to decipher. As expected, the choices included paid ads for kayaks that were being sold and some real reviews of kayaks. But there were also as a series of seemingly objective product-review sites that, on closer inspection, mainly contained product descriptions and links to buy items like kayaks from Amazon and other vendors.

For example, appeared to be an outdoor blog. It featured stunning photos of hikers in a fjord, but as I explored the site in search of kayak reviews, I found the usual rehashed product information with links for purchases.

Such blurring of the distinctions between expert reviews and explicit ads provides a ripe circumstance for the rise of advertising that is less than totally transparent.

Consider a case involving LendEDU, a student loan refinancing website. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in April that LendEDU had created a fictitious expert named Drew Cloud who was the “author” of articles published on the site. Drew Cloud was extensively quoted in news articles and “interviews” on personal finance blogs that were always conducted via email.

The fake expert recommended that students try to refinance their loans, which was helpful to the business of LendEDU. Drew Cloud has disappeared, and LendEDU has apologized for its deception, but the problem is certain to continue.

Expect to hear from the Drew Clouds of kayaks, mutual funds, laundry detergent and anything you might spend money on. Fake celebrity endorsements, altered product videos, bogus reviews and testimonials can’t be far off. We have relied on the law to protect us from advertising fraud but, as we learned after the last election cycle, the more numerous and micro-targeted the ads become, the harder they are to monitor. That’s a recipe for more trouble.

It’s not unlike the rise of marketing robocalls. The federal Do Not Call list and consumer protection rules have not prevented these calls from increasing 36 percent in the past year to 3.4 billion per month. Voters get lots of robocalls around election time, but the volume is modest compared with the number of calls about credit cards, vacation deals and loans.

Given the trends, the future looks grim. But before abandoning hope, remember that the history of advertising also teaches that when people get used to ads, the ads stop working.

Researchers have a term for it: advertising wearout. In the 1980s, Margaret Henderson Blair examined television commercials and found that “the overall persuasiveness of an ad declines exponentially” the more that consumers are exposed to it. Since then, researchers have documented the phenomenon in different media.

Two business school professors, Michael Braun at Southern Methodist University and Wendy W. Moe at the University of Maryland, have found that the effectiveness of an online ad falls almost 60 percent every time it is viewed. And new ads are less effective if they are part of a campaign the user has seen before.

As with special effects in movies, consumers become desensitized to ads the more they see them. The scary creatures from 1950s films, the shark in “Jaws” or the spaceships from science-fiction movies of the 1990s now often look like jokes.

Political ads often age badly, too. In his history of negative campaigning, “Going Dirty,” David Mark writes that in the 1994 election, dozens of Republican congressional candidates used “morphing” technology in ads to visually transform their Democratic opponents into President Bill Clinton, to devastating effect. But, in my observation, even one election cycle later, with the technology outdated and overused, people stopped responding.

That’s why political consultants say straightforward TV ads no longer work. People tune them out.

As technology develops, the same effect is likely to occur with advertising based on fake news. As we are inundated with new, targeted, deceptive ads, we may get sick of them and, perhaps, stop finding them persuasive. For now, it’s the best hope we have.