Say you’re a father of a teenage girl. One day, you get the mail and notice a Target coupon book addressed to your daughter, and it’s full of impending-baby supplies: supplements, lotion, diapers, cotton balls. You’re outraged. What is Target trying to do? Encourage another teenage pregnancy? You do what any father would do: you go to Target, ask for a manager, and give him a piece of your mind for sending out blatantly mist-targeted advertising like this. The manager, completely unsure of why in the world your daughter would get such a coupon book, apologizes profusely. Everyone chalks it up to a gaffe.
A few days later, you have a truly Orwellian moment: Target knew more about your daughter than you did. She’s pregnant. You didn’t know.
Sound like an impossible story? It’s not. In fact, it’s only one example of how companies are employing customer IDs, statisticians and data-mining to send you extremely targeted marketing. Here, ‘extremely targeted’ doesn’t mean advertising based on some known part of your shopping history or demographic; it means they are assigning you probability scores that something in your life is about to happen, and they want to get in on the ground floor to build customer loyalty.
Kashmir Hill, writing for Forbes, examines this exact story and illustrates how accurately companies can learn about you:
Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target, for example, has figured out how to data-mine its way into your womb, to figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you need to start buying diapers.
Hill references the original NYTimes story that uncovered company secrets like this, which is entertaining to the point of fiction. Except it’s not.
You always hear about privacy issues when it comes to major gaffes by web companies: Facebook and Google, most predominantly. I know folks who refuse to use Facebook because of privacy concerns. I know others who refuse to use Google unless their browser is in some flavor of privacy mode. I always tell them they’re kidding themselves. Opting out of those two services might prevent data collection and targeted marketing from them (and their partners) to you, but everyone is doing it. Everyone. The ones we find out about are the ones who have made mistakes. The others? They’re running data on you right now, or maybe selling your data to another company, who will combine your data assets to paint an incredibly detailed picture of you.
We get outraged and freaked out when hear about a company violating or monetizing our privacy. We might cancel accounts and refuse to patronize the company again. But what about the companies that haven’t violated us yet?
Is it any mystery why after you, say, buy an Infiniti, you get deluged by mailers and emails from BMW boasting about how the 3-series recently bested Infiniti in so-and-so tests? I’ve had this happen and have even thought, “Huh, that’s smart marketing” — right up until you realize how they’re doing it. And wonder what else they’re doing. And what other companies are doing.
You probably can’t drop off the grid, but this is worth thinking about. Even stuff that’s totally legal has the ability to make you very uncomfortable.
These are our times.
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