Experts in the black arts of marketing know that success depends not so much on the tangible quality of goods and services but on the extent to which potential customers have been spellbound by overstated claims.
Paradoxically, it’s also possible for critics of the merchandise and of the people who buy it to be taken in by high-octane sales lines.
Is this was happened in the case of Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis company that, using illegitimately harvested material from Facebook, allegedly gave the UK’s 2016 referendum to the Leavers, helped push Donald Trump into the White House, and conspired with Moscow to trash Western democracy?
The political commentariat across the Western world were so unprepared for and appalled by Trump’s success and the Brexit vote that a villain had to be found, since only foul play could have produced polling outcomes they considered so irrational.
Step forward Cambridge Analytica, which convinced clients, one of whom was Trump, that its psychological profiling techniques could transform political campaigns.
Did Trump, the Leave campaigners and possibly Mr Putin waste their money?
The question arises because the then head of the company says now that its “personality type” algorithm was not quite what it was cracked up to be. “It was an experiment. It didn’t yield the results we were looking for and we abandoned it pretty early on.
This data hadn’t been used with great effect to achieve anything.”
There is a demonstrable need for greater scrutiny of the uses — and abuses — of internet data, but perhaps in this case the company’s only crime was to gild the algorithmic lilly so lavishly that its wealthy clients forgot the golden rule: if it looks too good to be true, it almost always is.