Cambridge Analytica gathered information about people who “liked” L.L.Bean and Wrangler’s pages on Facebook to build algorithms to target people who might support Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, said Chistopher Wylie at the Business of Fashion’s annual conference in Oxfordshire, U.K.
As you might recall, Wylie was the whistleblower who first revealed that Cambridge Analytical had used the data of 87 million Facebook users without their consent. Wylie was a research director at Cambridge Analytica who eventually worked on the Trump campaign before deciding to share the company’s tactics with the media.
Wylie said that it was possible to identify a person’s openness to political messaging based on their fashion preferences. Cambridge Analytica developed a formula that included affinity for particular fashion brands, as well as five other psychological and personality traits, that included openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Taken together, Cambridge Analytica was able to identify people who would be susceptible to the Trump campaign’s use of populist political messaging.
People who favored American heritage brands like L.L.Bean and Wrangler were more likely to embrace Trump’s messaging. Meanwhile, preference for international designer labels, like Kenzo, for instance, were not likely to be swayed by ads for Trump.
Wylie, who worked as a SCL Group (a precursor to Cambridge Analytica), and then worked for Steve Bannon, says that Cambridge Analytica devoted significant resources to studying fashion. Researchers at the firm considered how personal preferences in clothing could reveal who might be open to populist ideas, and might be recruited to right-wing political views.
Wylie points out that fashion is used to reflect one’s identity, and people use it as a form of self-expression. So it can be a powerful tool for figuring out what someone believes. And as I pointed out in a story around the time of the Charlottesville march, clothes are often used to send a political message. White supremacists, for instance, have adopted the conservative outfit of khaki pants and white polo shirts to look respectable. And in the past, political groups, like the Nazis and the Maoists, deployed de facto uniforms so that people could show their allegiance to these movements.
While Cambridge Analytica used people’s preferences for fashion labels to map out their political beliefs, Wylie doesn’t believe that the brands themselves are neutral in this whole process. Fashion labels carefully cultivate brands, and it’s no surprise that L.L.Bean and Wrangler were connected to people who might be open to populist ideology. L.L.Bean’s owners, for instance, have themselves donated Trump’s campaigns. And Wrangler has marketed itself as a quintessentially masculine brand, and has been connected, in pop culture, to ideas about the working class, and even further back, to cowboys on the American frontier.
Fashion labels can play a powerful role in shaping people’s identity. But Wylie suggests that it might be possible for these brands to use this power for good, by creating identities that tie being proudly American to more progressive ideas about diversity and empathy.
It’s an intriguing idea. What if a brand like Wrangler learned from Cambridge Analytica’s findings that it is popular among people vulnerable to populist and white nationalist messaging? What if it used this knowledge to steer consumers to imagine a different America, one rooted in this country’s long history of inclusion?