Bias in, bias out: What Trump’s victory teaches the media industry | M&M Global

Bias in, bias out: What Trump’s victory teaches the media industry

Donald Trump’s election victory offers many lessons on the pitfalls of unconscious bias, argues former iotec CEO and BBC global head of ad sales Tom Bowman.


So what are the lessons for marketers from Donald Trump sweeping to victory this week?  And seemingly against the odds.

The first lesson is the risk around data sources. Not for the first time this year, pollsters and pundits called the election wrong, and that would be despite their extensive efforts in research, on the ground and modelling.

There has been more than one meeting where a marketer explaining a failed new product launch has plaintively cried, “But the research said this.” Sense checking data, using multiple sources and then adding your own judgement is superior to relying, perhaps in hope, on numbers that seem to say what you want to hear. Trump was innovative and disruptive (whatever your view on his views) and defeated an experienced campaigning machine.

“Language itself can contain the effects of historical biases”

Back to data though. Models use algorithms and the lesson for marketers is that is both wonderful and also not without the possibility of error. We should not be ‘in awe’. Algorithms ‘learn’ by running through a giant data pool (called a training set). Then those algorithms run against the live data. Out comes the judgement based on the machine’s learning.

A good question for any marketer to ask is what was in the original training set? If that data was contaminated by unspotted bias or something that was plain wrong, then the algorithms that drive the model will give an erroneous answer. It’s not easy to get this right, especially when intention can be influenced by so many variables. Language itself can contain the effects of historical biases.

Actions not words

Secondly, there is a lesson about rhetoric and government. These are not the same thing. It will, of course, be actions not words that matter with President Trump in the weeks and years. And it is what he does that we must pay attention to. Quite apart from the movement of potential staff and the environment, he said many things about trade deals; he is also the author of ‘The Art of the Deal’ (check out his reviews on Amazon!). It will be fascinating, and high stakes, to see this develop. These actions may change the world.

Just as important is what will remain the same in the new world of Trump. For a start, globally interdependent trade is not going away. And that means competition that may just take advantage of any faltering in the US. So the third lesson is keep an eye on commercial rivals. I can’t help thinking of those recent Chinese acquisitions of ad tech businesses like Smaato, and AppLovin. Is this a sign of things to come?

Perhaps we should be more positive. There have been comments on social media about the presidential result being America’s 9/11. All this disruption might just mean Trump turns out to be the opposite of 9/11 and a really good thing for the US. Don’t hold your breath though, just continue to look for the signal in the all the noise.

One last point: many years ago I brought news of a new-fangled trend for texting to a meeting on the West Coast. There was a significant spike in usage; the data was from Germany as I remember.  A very senior marketer dismissed the information. “Why would anyone type with their thumbs when they can use a keyboard?” Remember to watch out for your own biases.

Tom Bowman

Tom Bowman is a consultant. Reach him at

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