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Math Businesses Science

How Companies Learn Your Secrets 354

Hugh Pickens writes "For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Now the NY Times Magazine reports on how companies like Target identify those unique moments in consumers' lives when their shopping habits become particularly flexible and the right advertisement or coupon can cause them to begin spending in new ways. Among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby, and new parents are a retailer's holy grail. In 2002, marketers at Target asked statisticians to answer an odd question: 'If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn't want us to know, can you do that?' Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. 'We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there's a good chance we could capture them for years,' says statistician Andrew Pole. 'As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they're going to start buying everything else too.' As Pole's computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a 'pregnancy prediction' score and he soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry. '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 apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again but the father was somewhat abashed. '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.'"
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How Companies Learn Your Secrets

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  • by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:54PM (#39079075)

    You underestimate the power of directed advertising. To give you a hint, that's what makes Facebook worth and estimated $100 billion.

  • by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:56PM (#39079107) Journal

    But not terribly surprising.

    Given the opportunity, marketers will be more observant of the goings-on in a household than, say, the father of the house.

    Hell, I am the father of the house, and most stuff that happens catches me by surprise. So I can sympathize with the father mentioned at the end of TFS.

  • by The Raven ( 30575 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:56PM (#39079119) Homepage

    Back when retailers had a more personal connection to their clients, it was also not uncommon for a shopkeeper to notice that a customer was pregnant and stock something specifically for her. Personalization has always existed; this is a more of a comeback than something completely new.

    The flipside is that a shopkeeper also had a personal connection to the mother. Target has no such connection to Customer#9810957065409. This takes the personalization away from 'cozy' toward 'creepy'. It's like the uncanny valley of interactions.

  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:58PM (#39079145)

    The anecdote might be fake, but the use of stats? More than you can imagine. The fact is, human behavior is predictable.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:58PM (#39079153) Journal

    I'm the father of the house, and I came to the conclusion that I don't want to know what's going on in the house. Both kids are in their late teens now, and mutual ignorance seems to be the best way to get along.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:00PM (#39079185) Journal

    It's more like retail stalking.

  • by mfwitten ( 1906728 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:07PM (#39079265)

    Coincidentally, the FBI now lists as suspicious activity making purchases with cash.

  • by mounthood ( 993037 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:08PM (#39079279)

    Almost all forums have rules against personal attacks [wikipedia.org]. You'd commonly be banned for posting someone else's "IRL" (in real life) information. Yet here we see corporations doing exactly that for nothing more than profit. Data-mining like this is the beginning of an assault on our right to be "secure in our persons" and enjoy privacy.

  • by Artraze ( 600366 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:15PM (#39079363)

    Why do you find it so surprising that they do a good enough job of detecting pregnancy that after the better part of a decade they'll have found a case where the girl's father didn't know yet? Keep in mind that the girl is probably trying a lot harder to keep it a secret from her father than she is the store. Especially if he's the type that gets upset enough over stupid coupons implying potential pregnancy to go yell at a store manager? Yeah, I'm sure he's the first person she would tell.

    Honestly, I expect this happens quite a lot, but most people aren't hotheaded enough to go yell at a store manager about coupons. (Who would then have to call the them back a couple days later? That strikes me as more creepy than the preggo-score.)

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:16PM (#39079373)

    Have you ever checked your mail? Notice how it's literally full of completely untargeted advertising? If that's profitable, how could this possibly not be?

  • by apotheon ( 577944 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:38PM (#39079593) Homepage

    (Who would then have to call the them back a couple days later? That strikes me as more creepy than the preggo-score.)

    Maybe the manager asked for the telephone number when the guy came to complain so that he could call back a couple days later and offer them some kind of conciliatory special deal at the store (like discounts on something). On the other hand, maybe the manager was trying to arrange for the guy's family to no longer get (at the time, presumed faulty) targeted advertising, and was calling back to give them an update on the process (once again having explicitly asked for contact information for just this purpose). I don't know if it was actually creepy. We don't know enough details to come to a conclusion about that, I think.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:51PM (#39079739) Journal

    I think once your kids hit their late teens, they're close enough to being adults (if not outright adults) that the time when you're close personal involvement could have changed anything is long past. You're basically stuck with "I told you so..."

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:55PM (#39079783)

    So the retailer loaded up on all the wacko, high mark-up accessory pieces for my wife's china pattern and every time my aunt came into the store she would get the sales pitch for a soup tureen or something. This went on for years.

    I think that's a great illustration of the problem here - Target and all the other companies that are using "targeted advertising" are going beyond simply providing a service to actively trying to manipulate people. Advertising to inform is good, advertising to convince people spend money on products they wouldn't otherwise purchase is bad.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:56PM (#39079789)

    You clearly do not have children of that age (late teen).

    That is the time that you have to let them learn independence and consequence. Telling them is not going to do a lick of good, they have to experience those things first hand.

    Go back to academia with your theory, it doesn't apply in the real.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:59PM (#39079825)

    I'm detecting some sarcasm, but my detector has been acting up lately, so my apologies if I'm putting words in your mouth.

    If you're suggesting that his giving his young adult children some privacy is a bad thing, I would ask you for a more rational alternative. The best thing I can come up with is give them their space and to simply make it clear that you're always available and open to discussion. Being oppressive and snooping in their private lives only forces them to become rebellious.

  • by Born2bwire ( 977760 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:11PM (#39079933)

    That isn't what they want to do here. What they want to do is become the prime retailer for a set of products that people start buying at certain stages in their lives. Like how Gillette will send out free razors to people when the turn 18 to try and make them Gillette consumers for their life's supply of shaving products. Target here is trying to predict people who are pregnant and have reached the stage where they are ready to buy the associated baby products and providing incentives for these people to buy the products at Target. Then, the customers will be predisposed to continue buying these products at Target.

    They aren't trying to convince them to buy products they don't need, they are trying to convince them to buy a new range of products that they will need or want to buy from a specific retailer.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:15PM (#39079965)
    Well, yeah, personality development and all that jazz is pretty much settled (although there's still a lot of maturing to do). And lhmhi came off a little heavy handed. And I certainly don't have much room to speak as a non-breeder so far.

    ...But, uh, as a fellow member of society, do you think you could at least help your offspring out now and then? You know, in general? I'm all for phased independence, but that stretches all the way to the 40's where dependency starts to swing the other way. You really shouldn't just ignore them when they hit 16.

    Teen pregnancy is the topic, and it's implied that you're mutually agreeing to be ignorant of who is banging who, but really, the topic of sex doesn't have to be taboo. If anything that just makes it more of a reason to go out and be a rebel.
  • Re:Baby stuff (Score:5, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:16PM (#39080565)

    What a wonderful, mature, high-minded reason to bring a child into the world...

    I'm guessing you didn't grow up in a family, or in a family where family is actually considered important. Especially one where there's a lot of little brothers or sisters in it.

    Ah, so you could not refute what I said, yet you still didn't like the way it sounded, so now here come the thinly-veiled personal attacks concerning how inferior my life or my family must be. How transparent of you.

    My answer to you is very simple. I grew up in and remain in a family where family is considered very important. It's so important, in fact, that we don't make petty "me too!" games and contests of "I got first place!" out of important life events, particularly those as life-changing as becoming a parent.

    The family? Very important. Who did what first as if it's a competition? So unimportant that it isn't even on the radar.

    No here's the part you don't want to face: if two women in your family actually care about who gets pregnant first, to the point that they will try to become pregnant when one or more of them otherwise wouldn't have done so, the importance of family is low on their list. High up on their list is being petty, catty, and soaking up the attention and adoration from everyone else. If pointing that out offends you, or if you're struck by the realization that there are a lot of petty immature people in the world, then maybe you should deal with that on your own terms instead of trying to make a scapegoat of me.

  • by crutchy ( 1949900 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:40PM (#39080801)
    advertising isn't about getting people to spend then and there; its merely brand recognition, so that when you do go to the store you're not buying something that nobody else will, which consumers seem to care about. its manipulation of our desire for social status; our perceived need for "stuff" that might make us seem cooler to our friends. its pretty scary if you think about it. market research is more psychology.

    where it really gets creepy is their study of children in order to manipulate the spending of parents
  • by crutchy ( 1949900 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:49PM (#39080929)
    its funny you mention that, because your girlfriend might get you to go buy tampons for her, and your recognition of the brand you saw in an ad might make you more comfortable selecting that brand over other brands you've never heard of before, and you might not have the money for a $40,000 car now, but someday you may, and exposure to certain brands (usually the ones you see regularly in television advertising) means you will more likely choose a car from a brand you're familiar with, as if you choose something that isn't heavily advertised, none of your friends will be impressed with it when you roll up to work the next day. market research deliberately extends beyond the obvious because nobody wants to buy something that they think they're being tricked into buying, so the task of advertisers is to trick consumers into buying something without them thinking they're being tricked (so they think they are making their own choice).

    if you took away all forms of advertising, people would spend much less, and only on things they needed more. we are manipulated into buying stuff we don't need, and that's why there is such big money in advertising (google etc).
  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:50PM (#39080933)

    Ultimately, it would be easy to get freaked out by all this, but let's remember what this information is used for: to send you coupons you'd actually want to use. That's the whole thing. Dial back the paranoia a bit.

    See, that's the thing. Once they've collected all this data and made all these cross-references there isn't anything preventing the data from being used for other reasons. Kind of like the way drivers licenses and social security numbers were not initially inteded to be a form of identification. Yet once they became widespread it was just soo easy to repurpose them.

    Same thing with all of these marketing-driven data collection systems - once they've got a ton of data in them it is pretty much inevitable that someone is going trying and use them for something else. It is just too valuable for people to ignore.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.