Andre Torretta, at his office in São Paulo. Luís Simione
Andre Torretta associated himself to Cambridge Analytica, the controversial agency who worked for the Republican
“Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see”, he says about the strategy
El País, São Paulo 15 Oct 2017
“I bought a beach and I don’t want others to go there. What is the best sign to put in the sand?”, marketer Andre Torretta asked as he showed two photos in a PowerPoint presentation on his MacBook. “This one, saying the beach is private, or this one, warning of sharks? The one about sharks works better”, he said smiling, at his office, at a colourful coworking and ostensibly friendly building in a prime area in São Paulo. And if there’s no shark on the beach it would be a lie, right? “If there were no shark, then it’s fake news”, he conceded. “I won’t do that, but it exists, it’s possible and can be done, at the limit of ethics”.
The metaphor of the shark ” at the limit of ethics” is part of the material the 52 year old from Bahia state takes to introduce his new company, Cambridge Analytica Ponte, in the competitive Brazilian political marketing market. The agency is a mixture of his old consultancy specialized in class C Brazilians, Ponte Estrategia, with the British multinational Cambridge Analytica, a company that had promised to change, using psychology and big data, the behaviour of voters and consumers. In its portfolio, Cambridge Analytica has nothing less than the successful – and controversial – campaign of Donald Trump in the United States. The strategy used is to track the personality of the individuals on the basis of classic precepts of psychology and on the digital breadcrumbs we leave every day, such as social network profiles, GPS locations of places visited, data from the use of public services and online purchases. From there, they say they can produce messages moulded practically to the individual level, and they work to ensure they are delivered. To the target.
Ever since Trump won, Cambridge Analytica, which boasts of having read the minds of 210 million Americans, has not left the centre of controversy. It’s principal shareholder is the billionaire Robert Mercer, known for having changed Wall Street using big data and for being an important financier of conservative and far-right activists. There are academics in the USA and in the United Kingdom saying there are terrified about the company, a precisely targeting propaganda machine, and which if used without scruples, could be damaging. Others say a lot of it is self-marketing and are sceptical if whether, in fact, their method can deliver. “Cambridge did an ad in which it seems there is a monster behind it, but there isn’t. It is about making it more efficient”, says Torretta, who says he has adapted the strategy of the company because of the legal and technological differences between the two countries. “I tropicalized the methodology.”
If in the USA the fame of Cambridge is associated with CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix, a 41 year old Englishman who only appears wearing well-cut suits, branded glasses and well-combed hair, Andre Torretta is definitively more tropical. On the Friday he received EL PAIS, the marketer who has worked for 20 years in the field and on campaigns such as those for the Jose and Roseana Sarney from Maranhão and that of ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, did not wear a suit and wore a bright lilac coloured shirts. The thick lens glasses were not of any definable brand. He didn’t stop making jokes, many of them about himself. “My jokes are off the record, for the Love of God.” He said he couldn’t speak English and is far from the technological genius type. Even so, he guaranteed, it was the British sensation from the world of political marketing who sought him out, not the other way round.
According to Torreta, when they were working for the Trump campaign, Cambridge were also looking to the Brazilian 2018 elections. He says he was sought out a year and a half ago by a Spanish executive from SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), the mother company behind Cambridge Analytica. The envoy was looking for a partnership. That was when he heard for the first time of the Ocean methodology. “The guys were saying Ocean, Ocean. And I said, well, but tell me how and what it is. How do you get the egg to stand up?”, he said. The method (read further below) classifies people into five profiles in accordance the initial letters of the word – Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile. “So I saw they had a methodology able to make the egg stand up”.
In the United States, the ‘egg’ is ‘standing up’ thanks to around 7,000 data points that Cambridge, according to Torretta, is able to use on each individual. “The United States legislation is obscenely open. Thank God ours is not like that. It doesn’t allow me to go to Mastercard and buy all your data. It is forbidden both here and in England, in Germany it’s impossible. In the United States they even sell your soul”. In Brazil, Torretta calculates that this number of data points on everyone reaches 750 and that is where the tropicalization starts that he says he has done on the method. “The databases for Brazil are being built now. We have good well-stocked public databases. The government must have at least 500 to 700 data points on us, IBGE must have about 250 points, not personal, but of the micro-region where you live”, he explained. “So we already have 700 data points on each Brazilian. The credit rating agency, Serasa, must have another 40 data points”, he enthuses. He is convinced that, even if out data situation does not compare to the USA, his new company will work with much more information than any of his competitors. Not even private enterprise uses the potential of the data already available in Brazil, the marketer said.
The key, he argues, is going beyond the traditional stratifications of social class, place and sex to something much more specific. The campaigns in Brazil are already using some micro-targeting, but the bet has been made that the entry of big data and the consolidation of social networks changes the outlook profoundly. “Those going after Ivete Sangalo are the same as those going after Claudia Leite? No.” In other words, two women aged 35 from a prime area of Jardins, in São Paulo, may have completely different inclinations on the question of global warming and this can be decisive when buying a car or voting. In the calculations of the marketer, if each presidential candidate, for example, has more or less 50 speeches on the programme for government, you only have to choose which is the most suitable for each one. Torretta goes back to the PowerPoint presentation to point out a slide with five photos of President Michel Temer in different circumstances. “I can tell you which photo is better, in accordance with the neighbourhood or social class or the psychographic trace [of the person]”, he said. “Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see.”
Ethical dilemmas and MBL
But can the production of speeches on demand not deepen ethical dilemmas already known in national political marketing? Up to what point can the technique go without manipulating or stealing elections? Torretta rejects the idea. “I am a professional of argument. I don’t need to lie. We talk about change of behaviour, behavioural communication”. He admits, however, that the example of the sign warning of supposed sharks at the beginning of the report, provoking or exacerbating the feeling of fear to induce the behaviour of not going to the beach, is already being used in Brazil. “There you have to have a change in the game that, for me, is more violent than technological. This type of communication, that MBL knows how to do very well, was used in war. It’s more deep-seated. Someone taught them this.”
Torretta said he would reject a proposal to work with the right-wing activists Movimento Brasil Livre, but praises the digital militancy expertise of the group, who he says have an excellent database. “I always highlighted their skill.” And with the candidate the group has supported up until now, the mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, Would he work with them? “I have already done lots of talks for Doria, for Lide [organization of companions set up by Doria]. That’s one conversation I cannot deny”.
With a lean “and well-paid” group of 12 people, the marketer says he has not yet closed a deal with any presidential campaign, but says he was sounded out by two of them in recent weeks. “And we are in two state pre-campaigns”, he adds, without revealing where or for whom. “The problem is that Cambridge is perhaps very sophisticated for the Brazilian regional market, because we don’t do any digital campaign well”, he said. “Now a breach has opened up for politicians to do boosting [to pay for publications to reach more people on Facebook).” Thus he believes that “Cambridge will be sexy” for the Brazilian market.
The change that allows paid political advertising on Facebook, approved in the Brazilian political reform, is at the centre of a scandal in the USA, with two revelations: that it was staff of the social network itself that had worked as consultants on the Trump campaign, which invested heavily in performance tests of different ads on the platform, and that Russia paid to broaden the sending of messages on the network to stimulate the political division in the USA. The centrality this discussion took on in the USA showed that this authorization of use in Facebook in Brazil could be crucial in 2018 both for companies such as Cambridge as well as the monitoring of social networks, which have been active in Brazilian campaigns since 2014. On one point, the tools of big data can mine the information of each voter. On another, the Facebook advertising machine which holds a much more complex map of the user inclinations will deliver the political campaign with precision.
Whatever the case, for Torretta, any strategy that only considers Facebook in Brazil will not be complete. “The big social network in Brazil is WhatsApp”, he says. And that is where the tropicalization of the method to which he referred will be complete, his preferred workaround. He intends to use all the databases within reach – the first one being that of the party for which he is working – to transform the WhatsApp users into digital activists. He says he merely wants to systematize what people are already doing on their own. “People are interested in politics, but the parties are not taking part in the discussion.” Torretta tells how he created an app similar to WhatsApp, which has to be downloaded by sympathizers to work as a channel with the campaign. With the app, one can Interact with voters and ask them to share the candidate’s content on all the social networks, and especially on WhatsApp itself. Even if the adherence is only 10%, the impact will be considerable, he believes.
To set up this distribution network the marketer plans to leave big data and the new tools and return to his experience as a consultant specialized in class C, accustomed to qualitative surveys and to explain to companies regional differences, especially in the north-east. The mine of his original company, Ponte, he argues, are the dozens of contacts that he calls antenna, which he gathered during years of trying to understand the level of consumption in poorer communities: a community leader, a rapper, a young person who has the most visited page on the extreme east zone in São Paulo, all could have been his antennas in some consultancy for private brands in the past.
It all sounds very ambitious, but the marketer says the workaround has been tested and is working. The laboratory was a image positioning campaign carried out for the state deputy at the beginning of the year in Amapa – he doesn’t reveal the name. His team went to the state in the north, mapped the antennas, distributed the application and started to send out material. “Brazil is like the jabuticaba fruit. No marketer from abroad has been successful here. Quite the contrary, we export marketers”, he says. “Something that works in New York may very well not work in Amapa. But something that works in Amapa works anywhere”, he laughs.
Besides the pilot in Amapa, the preparation for the 2018 campaigns also involved a classic research study, to monitor Brazilian humour and the principal matters of interest. One of the basic but essential discoveries, he says, is that the population wants to see empathy in politicians. Another, more surprising for him, is that the discomfort with the very high interest rates for consumers has come on to the agenda for once and for all, as a result of the majority of the electorate with at least secondary education. “I can elect a federal deputy Just talking about interest rates”, he says. Another of his conclusions is that the preaching for “smaller State” hasn’t yet got through to the class C population.
What are the chances of a radical candidate, from the left or the right? At this question, Torretta becomes serious. He says he doesn’t believe that radicals – without mentioning names – can win. “The intelligent radical is one who can fool the people and pretends to be in the centre. People do not like radical things”, he says. “And, thank God, our radicals are not very intelligent and society has not embraced their agendas. This is why they have only found an echo in their own groups “, he says, but adds with more humour than analysis: “I have faith. I go to church on Sunday, on Monday I go to umbanda and on Tuesday I go to the spirit centre”. And where are the white clothes of the candomble devotees if we on a Friday? Torretta turns in his chair and raises his leg up high, showing his white trousers. “Marketer and from Bahia. This is a profession with a very heavy karma.”
The Ocean method
Ocean is the initial of each word: Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile
To apply this technique, the person has to respond to a questionnaire consisting of about 20 statements, whose responses are made into scales of how much they agree or disagree with a given statement. The phrases are simple and direct, for example such as, “I have a vivid imagination”, or “I believe in the importance of art”, and “I tend to vote for liberal politicians” or “I don’t like myself”, “I insult people”, or “I run away from my responsibilities”.
Before seeing the result, you have to leave your e-mail or log in to a Facebook account, obliging the user to leave another data point to fatten the agency database.
Torretta explains it is possible to construct an Ocean scale, as it would be impossible to have a questionnaire responded to by 100% of the population. “Of course Cambridge dreams of having 7 billion people in the whole world answer the questionnaire”.