Friday, February 17, 2012

Target Knows When You Are Pregnant

Charles Duhigg published a recent exposé in the New York Times about the information Target collects about its customers to try to change their buying habits. If I had overheard someone recounting the details on the street, I would have assumed he was a moderately deranged conspiracy theorist. But it's not a conspiracy. It's all true.

Most big companies now employ statisticians to try to predict and shape customers' buying patterns. Target is apparently just better at it than most. People are slaves to their own shopping habits. But there are certain times in their lives when they are more likely than usual to change their patterns. One of the primary such times is when a woman is pregnant. Any bush league company can search public records to figure our when a baby was born. And many do. So when a woman has a baby, she's instantly ambushed with piles of store ads and coupons. Once the word is out, however, it's hard for any one store to stand out above all the noise. Target realized that it would have a huge advantage if it could get its ads and coupons out to women before they gave birth. In particular, they figured out that pregnant women in the beginning of their second trimesters were the jackpot. That's when they started buying all the preparatory junk they figured they'd need when their babies came along, and when they were most susceptible to pressure to shop somewhere else.

The Target statisticians were able to come up with a "pregnancy prediction" score - a basket of 25 products that could determine, with about 87% accuracy whether a shopper was a pregnant woman. The basket included things like unscented lotion, hand sanitizers, calcium and zinc supplements, and large bags of cotton balls. Coming up with a list of names and home addresses of tens of thousands of expectant mothers was easy. Target realized quickly, however, that sending ads and coupons for baby products to women who had never told Target they were pregnant was a good way to make those women completely flip out. To be confronted with the stark reality that a giant corporation was peeping into the most intimate corners of their lives crossed some line. Too big brother. Too skeevy. So Target further refined its methods to be a bit more subtle. Having the technological capacity to create individualized ad and coupon mailings for specific people, the materials they sent to pregnant women had lots of baby stuff, but just enough other unrelated items - lawnmowers, wine glasses, whatever - to make the ads seem random. The strategy of profiling customers, but in a way just subtle enough that the customers didn't realize they were being profiled, was a blockbuster for Target. Its revenues went through the roof when they started profiling customers in this way.

So. Anything wrong with this? People react strongly, negatively, when they learn that they're being profiled. That Target is so secretive about the fact that it uses statistical profiling, and that it knows it has to be subtle enough about it so that people don't realize they're being profiled, suggests that the practice is at least somewhat questionable. On the other hand, nobody is forcing anyone to buy anything. We're all adults. Ads are ads and we all know to take them with a grain of salt. The Target PR team would probably say that the company is just very effective at figuring out what people want and offering it to them. And maybe that's right.

It seems like there's a line to be drawn between making people aware of the products you have to offer and nefarious psychological manipulation. But exactly where one leaves off and the other begins is, of course, almost impossible to pinpoint. When do our actions stop being subject to our own conscious free will and start being controlled by imperceptible manipulation? What about babe-o-licious light beer ads, for example? Every guy knows, rationally, that buying a case of shitty, watered down swill is not going to give him firm pectoral muscles and make a gaggle of hot women want to drag him off to bed. But the ads work. Beer companies wouldn't spend billions of dollars a year on them if they didn't. None of us think we're gullible, stupid, subject to obvious manipulation. But alas, we are.

So what to do? I can think of a few alternatives:

1) Surrender. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Watch more TV. Construct a self-image based on material possessions, impossible physical beauty and brand names. Buy lots of stuff on impulse, especially things that are right at eye level when you walk into a store. Show off your car. Play a lot of Keno.

2) Withdraw. Don't subscribe to magazines, use credit cards, send e-mails, get a mortgage or post anything on-line. Move to the third world. Live in a hut. (There are ads out in the bush too. So maybe poke your eyes out to be safe.) Cut off all ties to the modern world. And if you still can't shake the manipulative forces of 21st century capitalism from your scent, you might just have to go drown yourself in a river.

3) Trust no-one; Believe in conspiracy theories; Become paranoid. A little disconcerting, I know. But this is the choice I'd advocate for. Our every move is being watched and recorded! It's not a conspiracy theory if it's real. It's not paranoia if it's justified. The forces at work out there aren't part of some evil empire trying to conquer and destroy us. They're just engaged in the old-as-humanity-itself game of trying to separate us from a few bucks. But they're getting really good at it. So, follow the money. Be aware of which of your desires come from deep within yourself and which are being subtly imposed by some well-honed ad campaign. Don't buy shitty light beer. And, next time you go to Target, pick up some calcium and unscented hand lotion to throw them off your trail.


veryfrank said...

Unless, of course, you truly like shitty watered down beer, like some bloggers I know.

Michelle LeBlanc said...

I just read this...interesting. I was trying to think if I had bought large quantities of unscented lotion and cotton balls but I don't think I did. However, I'm sure I've been a sucker for them many times before.

Leslie K. said...

I don't recall every buying large amounts of cotton balls. Never. But especially not when I was pregnant. Now I'm all curious about exactly what they think pregnant women do with these cotton balls......