Taraji P. Henson gets out of her car in an underground garage as cameras watch her every move. She gets into an elevator, then ditches it for the back stairs. When she spots a surveillance camera, she sprays out its lens. “We are under surveillance, y’all,” she says. “Privacy is not the big tech business model. You know that thing where you’re talking about something, and then you get ads about it on your social? That’s not convenient, that’s creepy.”
This is the award-winning actress starring in the first-ever ad campaign for Signal, an encrypted messaging service that doesn’t log, monitor, or sell user data.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021
Also contributing to Signal’s explosive popularity was the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, when social networks like Twitter and Facebook were scrambling to control the distribution of misinformation. Many Trump-following extremists were ultimately banned from the platforms, including President Trump himself.
According to Sensor Tower, between January 6 and January 10, Signal was downloaded 7.5 million times. Signal’s head of growth and communications Jun Harada says that while a marketing campaign had been planned and created before the surge, the brand’s strategy did consider an uptick in conversations around privacy, as scrutiny of social platforms generally increased around the U.S. presidential election. “We are launching this campaign on International Privacy Day (January 28) in part because it‘s a day that needs more recognition and understanding, but also because we expected that the idea of being free from manipulative content algorithms and targeted ads would be an emerging topic in the wake of world events,” Harada says. “And the last year of always being online has exposed not only a rift in access for different communities, but has also created an immense data dump. People know they’re being listened to. After lockdown (and our lives moving increasingly online) the concept of data privacy is something humanity can no longer ignore.”
Created with New York-based agency Technology, Humans And Taste (THAT), the brand campaign includes Henson and comedian Jordan Firstman. Firstman became Signal’s first official spokesperson in December when, dressed as Santa, he confessed to giving up on letters in favor of buying data from big tech to take the work (and consent) out of finding your Christmas gifts.
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“We are doing this by partnering with creators to interpret ‘privacy’ in their own unique ways,” says Harada. “We are serving as a service that can extend and amplify those messages to the millions of people that have raised their hands with questions around what data privacy really means and how they can exist online on their own terms.”
Along with all the brand’s official work, on January 11 creative Ramkumar G posted a spec ad to Reddit, and it quickly found fans across social. Signal has reached out to G and plans to work with him on a collaboration in India.
Love this ad from Signal pic.twitter.com/Mk9kHGH2r5
— Toby ☕️ (@tobydoyhowell) January 16, 2021
Signal executives see their biggest brand challenge as getting more people to give a damn about their data privacy.
For its first major marketing effort, the goal was to keep things as simple as possible. “Rather than try to explain how the tech (behind their app works), we‘re highlighting those moments we all recognize,” says Harada. “The abuse of personally identifiable information by Big Tech is dangerous, complicated and unethical, yes, but it‘s also just plain creepy, and that resonates with people. Our downloads demonstrate that that‘s enough motivation for people to opt out of Big Tech and communicate safely on Signal.”
Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation works to destigmatize mental health, and Signal saw that connection to personal privacy. “Taraji‘s focus on mental health awareness is very relevant to privacy, because without privacy, your health information could be used without your consent,” Harada says. “With Taraji‘s talent and immense body of work, we knew she would be able to bring the information to life in a way that went beyond the technology and spoke to the human and emotional aspects of privacy.”
But Signal needs to do more that just sell their users on the importance of privacy. This week, concerns over the company’s plans with user names and cryptocurrency surfaced, specifically, that extremists kicked off Facebook and Twitter would misuse Signal’s privacy and encryption to their advantage, and that the company hasn’t planned enough for that possibility. This is where things get tricky, because Signal is a messaging app that allows messages to reach a maximum of 1,000 people, far from the large-scale, algorithm-boosted distribution of major social networks. A company spokesperson compared the difference to a phone line versus a TV network.
Right now, though, the company is using the spotlight WhatsApp inadvertently shined its way to pitch the importance of privacy to a broader audience. And it’s doing so by smartly looking at the issue from more than one perspective, covering their bases by approaching the “I have nothing to hide” crowd with the business case against giving your digital life details away. “Your data is being bought and sold for billions of dollars,” Henson says in the new spot. “Big Tech collects every click and conversation that you have and sells it out, and that’s some real bullshit.”