April 2, 2019

Dr. David Kamerer is an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. In addition to being an advisory board member for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy, Dr. Kamerer is the current program director for the university's Global Strategic Communication graduate program.

You’ve had an interesting career, can you give us a rundown on what brought you to Loyola?

I earned my Ph.D a long time ago and I taught for awhile, and then I moved to corporate communication and public relations. I was coming from a large nonprofit that supported people with low vision, and that included employment and rehabilitation services, and I did that for about 8 years.

When the digital world really started heating up I got really eager to jump back in and when my daughter graduated from high school I jumped and I took a one-year tune up at the local university where I was living at the time, and then I came to Loyola the next year and I'm currently in my tenth year here.

You're currently the program director for the global and strategic graduate program here at Loyola, what other areas does your work focus on?  

I'm nominally a public relations guy and I also focus on new media, so my sweet spot would be public relations and digital tactics. That would also include analytics and measurement.

You do a bit of work with native advertising, could you talk about that?

I’m interested in what I call ‘influence’, and sometimes it’s earned, which is a PR activity, sometimes it's paid, which is an advertising activity. I really do believe that there's a soft partition there, and that a lot of the new digital ad-units that are more effective have attributes of earned and paid, and native advertising would be a good example of that.

As a public relations person I really care about trust. When people don't fully understand where the messages are coming from and why those messages are in front of them, that erodes trust. A lot of times people engage in these kind of marginal or newer ad-units because they feel like they're kind of pulling one over on people, so there might be a short term gain, but more likely it creates a long-term erosion of trust.

How do we combat that and gain back people’s trust?

Going back to native advertising, I think it's fine for a company to represent its message in created content for people that they’ll actually want to read, but they need to clearly disclose that they wrote it, they paid for it and that when you read it you're reading an ad.

Disclosure’s one of the biggest issues in native advertising, it’s also a major problem with influencers. Of course influencers are always in the news (laughters) because they love to take the money, but they don’t always tell us that we’re looking at ads. A lot of people don’t really seem to care, but a lot of people do, and the law is that you have to disclose.

Another area that’s sort of in the middle would be affiliate programs. This is where you go on a website and you’re presented with something that says, ‘This is a great moisturizer!’, you click through and buy it and the people who put that content in front of you get a kickback from the purchase.

Those are the 3 big areas I’ve been looking at, also online reviews are kind of related. They’re not really paid, but they’re often times efforts by the business to get people to write reviews and to write a certain kind of review. There's all sorts of room for shenanigans between traditional ad-units and traditional public relations activities, and one of the main reasons that people have moved to this nether region between the two is because of the predominant digital ad-unit display ads, and frankly no one wants to look at them, nobody clicks on them, and a lot of people block them. So advertisers are desperate to reach people where they are, which is online, but reach them in a way that’s more effective than a banner ad.

That kind of leads into the idea of ‘digital ethics’, why be on the advisory board for the Center?

We clearly do want to create an environment that’s fair for consumers, but also has value for brands and agencies. We want an ecosystem that works and that people understand, it’s completely legitimate that brands want to reach their stakeholders through paid and earned channels, so we’d like to create a culture where people understand the rules of engagement.

I care deeply about media literacy and news literacy, and people who are well equipped with media literacy skills are better equipped to understand what they’re clicking on.

Aristotle talked about the 3 great appeals: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos is the logical appeal, like getting all the specifications on a computer you might buy. Pathos, that would be Sarah McLachlan trying to get you to donate to the SPCA, and ethos has to do with the carrier of the message. I believe our culture has neglected to really teach people to appreciate ethos and ethical appeal.  

What are some of the best practices for teaching that ethical appreciation in media literacy?

Well, it’s always good to know how the sausage is made. Understanding, for example, that Google is an advertising platform is good, but a lot of people don’t even think of Google as a major force in advertising, yet it is the major destination for digital advertising. People think about Facebook as a social network, but it’s really an advertising platform with a social layer.

So, when people go in with their eyes open, and if they understand those structures, they can better understand why the algorithms put those messages in front of them. Then they can load those messages with the appropriate ethos and then treat them appropriately.

Our democracy is based upon the premise that people are smart enough to govern themselves, and that means we need educated citizens. That goes far deeper than the kind of work I do everyday because it has to do with people processing the news properly. I saw a report recently that of the top 15 most shared stories on Facebook last year, 4 of them were from fake sources and many of them were from non-journalistic publishers that you’ve never heard of, where you have no idea what they’re doing. It’s important for students within the digital field to understand that when they see that writing why they’re being enticed to click, and of course we want to train them to not write like that.

In addition to being an academic you’re also a musician, correct?

I try. I love to play music, I’m not very good at it, but I do have 50 years of experience doing it (laughter), so that makes up for the lack of talent.

I’m a guitar player, bass player and ukulele player, and I love playing jazz standards, swing jazz, Gershwin and Cole Porter; love Django Reinhardt. For pleasure I like listening to more modern jazz, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, stuff like that.

Before I was at Loyola I ran a music series and I’ve produced about 120 concerts and promoted them, and used my PR promotion skills to build what I thought was a very good, durable music series, and it’s still going without me and I’m happy about that.


This interview has been edited for time and clarity