Marketing vs. Privacy

I’ve never seen my father use an ATM card or credit card. Until a few years ago, I wasn’t even certain he had a checking account. He is the only person I know who carries $50 bills. And after reading the New York Times‘ article How Companies Learn Your Secrets, I can almost understand why my dad pays for most things with cash. He’s a big fan of Orwell’s 1984 and he’s concerned about privacy. He doesn’t shop online or use the Internet.

Meanwhile I used my ATM card for a $3 tall chai this afternoon and have made several online purchases in the last few days. I work for an Internet retailer… so the apple does fall far from the tree in this case. Judging by the NYT article, Target probably can most likely predict what brand of shampoo, toothpaste and face cleanser I will buy, along a random assortment of household goods, when I visit the store next. These are not secrets though, these are my purchasing habits.

A lot of companies invest energy, time, and financial resources in attempt to predict what customers will buy, then market those products to that customer. If it works, it can draw a customer in for years and thousands of dollars. If it doesn’t, the move risks offending customers and potentially losing the customer for good. The financial risk is high. So Target figured out a way to predict which female customers were pregnant, but realized the company could offend women if they marketed only pregnancy and baby items. A little randomization in the advertisements feels less sneaky, they discovered. This is legal, but still a bit creepy. Is anyone really shocked that companies like Target (and probably a lot of other places I shop at) track customers’ purchases, when given the opportunity and technology to do so? Doesn’t it make really, really good marketing sense? The creepy factor is still there, though.

The marketing story about Febreeze and how habits and cues related to brain activity were interesting side notes. The Febreeze marketing saga reminded me of my college days, when I was frequently spraying Febreeze on my black pea coat to get rid of the cigarette smell after a night out (the state I lived in permitted smoking in bars in the early 2000s, and I was too cheap to get my coat dry cleaned on a regular basis).

I’m part of the generation that grew up with video cameras and reality TV. My cohorts were early adopters of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. My generation wants to share with their friends and the world at large. In the 18-30 age group, oversharing is rampant in my humble opinion. And knowingly posting personal information is one thing. I’m not sure how I feel about a company tracking a woman’s purchases over time and then trying to identify if that woman is pregnant. I suppose the way around this is to pay in cash.