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WhatsApp wants Americans to know strangers could be reading your SMS texts

The Meta-owned messaging platform’s first-ever U.S. ad campaign aims to raise awareness around the importance of end-to-end encryption.

WhatsApp wants Americans to know strangers could be reading your SMS texts

It’s not normal for your mail to arrive with the envelopes already open. Nor is it reasonable to expect that Amazon or FedEx box to land on your doorstep unsealed and agape. So why don’t Americans feel any different about the 5.5 billion unencrypted SMS text messages they send every single day? This analogy is the central point of the messaging platform WhatsApp’s first-ever U.S. brand campaign.

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WhatsApp has about 2 billion daily users across 180 countries, and they send more than 100 billion messages daily. But WhatsApp is far more popular and widely used in countries, such as India, which reportedly has more WhatsApp users than the United States has residents.

There are a number of reasons why WhatsApp is more widely used globally than locally. In particular, it gained widespread adoption when international carriers were charging high fees for text messages, and WhatsApp was free. Meanwhile, in the United States, wireless carriers in the smartphone era started to offer free SMS messaging as an inducement to sign up, creating less incentive to adopt WhatsApp when there were already free SMS, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger, to name three alternatives. Americans also have traditionally exhibited a lack of concern, or even awareness, around privacy issues, favoring convenience and free services (which, of course, has generally been a boon to Facebook and other platforms).

WhatsApp has also been central to its parent company’s push in the last few years to offer more secure enclaves for users. WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted by default, whereas texts sent across different operating systems (namely from iOS to Android) are sent via SMS.

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“There are two objectives here,” says WhatsApp head of marketing Eshan Ponnadurai. “One, just at a category level, how do we create a sense of awareness that you should be messaging in private, and SMS messages, by default, are not that? And secondly, helping people understand that WhatsApp is a service that provides end-to-end encryption.”

Created with ad agency BBDO San Francisco, the campaign’s main commercial, “Doubt Delivered,” debuts on TV during the NFL’s AFC Championship game on Sunday, January 30. The delivery man in the spot is an actor, but everyone getting the opened mail are real people filmed with hidden cameras. While personal privacy is a very serious issue, the brand didn’t want to tap into the alarmist paranoia that so many home security commercials have mined. “We don’t want to scare and create a morbid feeling of insecurity about the messages they’re sending every day,” says Ponnadurai.  “We wanted something that will make people laugh and smile but also walk away thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe I should think about how I’m sending my messages everyday.'”

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According to a November 2021 Washington Post-Schar School poll, 72% of Americans don’t trust Facebook, while 53% don’t trust WhatsApp. And last year, the brand was plagued by confusion around just how private its privacy policy is. In January, there were mixed reports over whether the platform’s new policy would allow Facebook access to its user data. And in September, a ProPublica report drew scrutiny on how WhatsApp monitors abusive content while still ensuring end-to-end encryption.

Selling the idea of sending end-to-end encryption to Americans is probably the easy part. Much tougher may be convincing them that the Meta-owned platform is the place to do it. Because when it comes to trust, in particular around issues of privacy, the one thing WhatsApp’s parent company has been consistently delivering is doubt.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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