The Pregnancy Predictor

Does it really matter that companies, both online and in real life, profile you based on your purchasing and surfing habits? After all, it means you get ads and offers more targetted to you, and that can only be a good thing, right?

An angry man went into a Target outside of Minneapolis, demanding to talk to a manager:

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Footnote: Target’s revenues have grown from $44 billion in 2002 to $67 billion in 2010. Company president Gregg Steinhafel has boasted to investors about the company’s “heightened focus on items and categories that appeal to specific guest segments such as mom and baby.”

4 thoughts on “The Pregnancy Predictor

  1. It’s certainly disconcerting, isn’t it?

    Though I’m more interested in the later paragraphs – knowing how people get upset if they think they’re being spied on, they conceal it by hiding the targeted ads among untargeted ones, so they look like happy coincidence rather than a cause for paranoia. Devious people, marketers…

  2. While I’m not a big fan of unsolicited advertisements in the mail, I actually approve of targetted advertising (no pun intended), if it’s done well. If I’m going to see advertisements, I’d rather they be for something related at least tangentially to my interests, as opposed to something I’d never have any interest in whatsoever.

    In general, a lot can be done simply by context — matching advertisements up with the topical nature of the content that surrounds them. Perlmonks.org has for years run advertisements for a hosting service (Pair Networks), which is brilliant because it’s a service that a lot of Perl programmers might have a real use for.

    YouTube does, as near as I can tell, pretty much exactly the opposite: I’ll be watching a video about, for instance, some nuance of Japanese culture, and the prepended advertisement will be about Ohio politicians. What? Why? Where did that come from? If I were interested in politics, wouldn’t I be watching some politically-oriented content?

    Yes, I do realize that what Target was doing was a little different, using an individual person’s habits to target the advertising. I still don’t have a big problem with the targetted aspect of it. Amazon has for years done pretty much the same thing: “People who bought this book also bought this other book. Buy both of them together for only [exactly the same figure you get by adding their two prices together].” This can briefly become rather amusing if you buy a couple of gifts for people with interests radically different from your own, but it goes back to normal pretty quickly, because a statistical anomaly is after all not the same thing as a trend, and even a computer can figure out the difference.

    I’m a lot more bothered by the “we mail papers to your house that you didn’t ask for” aspect of things than the selection of advertisements that they think will be more relevant to you.

    • What’s mail?

      More seriously, while the anecdote mentioned here certainly is disconcerting, there is a tradeoff here. Much targeted advertising is harmless. Some is useful. A very small fraction is off-putting as here. Very little is perfect all the time for everyone. And I think concentrating on the few edge cases where things go horribly wrong is the wrong way to look at the value proposition for targeted advertising.