Posts tagged “Privacy”

You’re not paranoid. You really are being followed.

Are we what we buy?

I find myself more and more frequently coming back to the remarkable visions of Philip K Dick, a science fiction author who transcended his genre. He died in 1982 at 53, long before the release of the eight major motion pictures  based on his fiction. In both Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and, even more so, The Minority Report, highly personalized and targeted marketing plays a significant and sinister role.

Dick foresaw a future – nearly our present – where incessant messaging became a prominent aspect of “modern” life. Now it seems his visions, like those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are becoming fact. A recent NY Times article describes the use of analytics to do “predictive marketing.” [NY Times February 16, 2012, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets."]

Based on tracking our online purchases, posts and comments (and, yes, that information is available to those who want it) companies like Target can now “target” specific life events and send marketing materials to us based on those analytics. The in-depth NY Times article focuses on “the holy grail of marketing: new parents.” The concept is that when life-changing events occur – such as having a baby – shopping habits can suddenly change and consumers (us) are up for grabs.

Haven’t I seen you here before?

Apparently we (the generalized, averaged “we”) shop habitually – according to set habits that are hard to break. But during busy, disorienting times in our lives we apparently don’t care anymore where we buy certain things, just that we can get them as easily as possible. Target, and other mega-stores, hope that by tapping into our consciousness at those times, we’ll decide that we can keep on going back for other things we might not habitually buy there.

This is not merely theoretical: it’s now a proven fact. However, it is a tad insidious, and Target doesn’t want us to know they’re doing it. Once they got the gist of the NY Times writer’s intentions and subject matter, they shut down communications and prevented him from visiting their offices.

That’s because, according to the article, what they’re doing will only work if they don’t alert expectant moms and their families that they are doing it. If that happens, the fecal matter hits the air rotation device.

The article mentions one very pissed off dad storming into his local Target, demanding to see the manager, then thrusting coupons for Pampers, etc., into the poor, confused person’s hands. The man angrily said his daughter, the recipient of said coupons, was still in high school and was not pregnant. However, when the distraught manager (who had no clue about the corporate program) phoned the man a few days later to apologize again, the father sheepishly said he owed the manager an apology – he had recently learned that his young daughter was indeed pregnant.

Yes, we are being watched.

So, how did Target know when the girl’s own dad didn’t? Online postings and patterns. We are – as Philip K. Dick predicted we would be – being watched. And the people watching are looking for specific patterns and indicators in order to sell us stuff.

I don’t know about you but I’m mostly casual and often incautious when posting online. I assume I’m among friends. When we’re on forums and online groups, we respond in the moment and move on. I don’t usually think about those tweets or forum posts for any longer than it takes to type them. And I’ll bet it’s the same for you.

So are we really only what those rapid-fire posts and updates say about use? Obviously, no, we’re not, any more than Chief John Anderton was what his fellow cops thought he was when he was set up. But it seems it’s enough for desperate marketing departments.

There are, of course, more standard ways to slice and dice audiences, such as motor vehicle registration. It’s reasonably possible to predict who a person is, down to gender and age, based on the vehicle that’s registered. For example, the owner of a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle (euphemistically called a rice burner or a crotch rocket) can reliably be predicted to be a male, between 17 and 24. Certain Buicks and Toyotas can reliably predict age groups, and with the addition of car color, possibly gender. But then there’s the name on the registration. That helps.

Another method is magazine subscriptions. If you want to find a certain audience, traditional methods have been fairly reliable for a number of years. But things are changing, rapidly – both how marketing is being done as well as to whom.

Is marketing evolving or devolving?

This is a bigger deal than it may sound like. It’s not just about Target and it’s not just about selling us stuff. We may not end up running for our lives like the characters in Philip K. Dick stories, but a whole lot more about us will be available to way more people than we ever thought possible, thanks to this tracking trend.

It’s one thing to have broad-based demographics for magazines and TV shows that tell us where to place marketing dollars based on the media content, and quite another to send coupons and offers that are just a little too close for comfort, just a little too personal.

Demographics are based on the population at large, not specific individuals. And they’re typically made up of generalized data. Tracking, on the other hand, is all about us, up close and personal. Do we really want that?

The newly developed practice of “predictive analytics” (… yep, The Minority Report, again) isn’t just about understanding consumers’ shopping habits – it’s about figuring out what’s going on in our lives, and our personal habits, in order to more efficiently market to us, specifically, individually.

As stated in the New York Times article, predictive analytics is “the science of habit formation … a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs.”

Feeling manipulated, yet? Feeling invaded? It will only get worse. Statisticians, scientists and mathematicians have been increasingly in demand at places like Target, Walmart and Amazon.

It’s déjà vu all over again.

There apparently are positive applications of predictive analytics and the studies of habit formation, such as turning around sports teams, improving safety records at manufacturing plants and the ability to diet effectively. But there are also those nasty, “marketing from the dark side” applications.

Am I over-reacting? Well, is this really only about selling us paper towels and laundry soap? I don’t know. We’ve come a long way in limiting the intrusiveness of advertising, perhaps too far. So “they” are fighting back. They’re having a much harder time reaching us via television and radio, or a near-impossible time. And our online reading has been eroding print media at an alarming rate.

It’s been a symbiotic relationship for nearly ten decades. Commercial magazines and newspapers, as well as radio and TV shows, still are unable to exist without advertising dollars. That’s always been the case. But our ability to zap commercials, listen to anything but radio and selectively read what we want online has precipitated tectonic changes in target marketing. Many companies are grasping at the straws of SEO and social media, but find those still-developing alternatives fall far short.

So, they’re constantly working on new tools to achieve sales quotas. As technology advances, so do marketing techniques. We can now be tracked merely by having cell phones, and GPS devices in our cars. Potential employers can see everything we’ve posted online, should they choose to. Do we really want everything we do, say and buy, as well as everywhere we go tracked at all times in the name of marketing?

Sadly, our new lifestyles based on interacting with an online world means that we may lose the great journalists for whom doing in-depth, investigative reporting paid off. Not only is the pay for providing content on Web sites abysmally bad (see my posts about content mills), the newspapers that they wrote for are disappearing.

Of course, everyone knows that television journalism has already been replaced with infotainment. It’s all about ratings, just like sitcoms, not informing the public or the journalistic integrity of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Ever since the O. J. Simpson televised car chase, news has become a spectator sport.

Privacy is less and less so every day.

Our private lives used to be private. Period. No hazy edges to it. We apparently have given that up for the freedom, ease and flexibility of the Internet. As soon as we began spending so much of our time online, privacy stopped being black and white. We have to proactively tell the sites we visit and the search engines we use to not hold onto our data.

The newly developing practice of “predictive analytics” couldn’t achieve anything if it had no data to analyze. Everything we do is being tracked to create that data. GPS. Credit card purchases. Online ordering. And forums. We provide the data.

Will all this tracking become merely white noise to us? Will we simply stop noticing and carry on as if it doesn’t matter?

As of this writing, Google’s privacy policies are making a lot of news. Their purpose in tracking where we go online, which videos we watch, which businesses we visit, and even just plain searches, is not as invasive as it might sound. For the time being, they aggregate data rather than drill down to specific individuals the way Target and others are doing. Their objective is to have data to sell, not our actual e-mail addresses or other personal information. But who knows what the future holds?

Data mining is the gold rush of this era. In a way, we haven’t left “them” any choice. We’ve circumvented the standard marketing options of television, radio and print ads. Pretty much all that’s left of the classic media buy era is outdoor board. And we’ve all learned to not even notice those.

So what’s seemingly free – all that stuff we do online – does have a cost, which we pretty much suspected all along. What they want us from us in exchange for our time online is to know where we go, how long we stay there, what we buy, how often we buy it … and whether or not we’re their target market. So far it’s about selling stuff. Someday soon, though, as Dick foresaw, it could become about a whole lot more.


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