That's Nothing -- K-Mart Told Me I'd Have a Son Named Stanley in 2024

Darrell, Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, Forbes posted an article tantalizingly (if awkwardly) titled, "How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did". The article summarized Charles Duhigg's nine-page New York Times article about Target's advanced marketing research techniques. The whole article is worth the read, but to summarize even further, Target associates your buying habits with a unique customer ID that allows the company to distribute more focused advertisements and deals.

To address the privacy issue directly, this is nothing new -- focused marketing has been around for centuries. Most of you have a key-fob from your local grocery store that lowers prices for many items. Your bill is lower, but you're paying the store back by telling it everything about your shopping habits. It doesn't take tremendous pattern recognition to notice that the coupons you get at checkout are for items related to what you usually purchase. If that truly bothers you, never register with a store and pay only in cash. Problem solved; find another thing to be paranoid about.

What struck me about this matter, though, is that the privacy issue is treated as the most interesting part of the article. From Duhigg's original, Forbes latched onto one possibly apocryphal anecdote: A man's teenage daughter received baby-related coupons from Target, and that's how he learned he was going to be a grandfather a bit earlier than he anticipated. It's an amusing story that Duhigg used to discuss how Target decided to be less obvious about focused marketing. (After all, it's in Target's interest to have a customer base that's not completely creeped out.) Where Duhigg emphasized Target's desire to ease customers' worries, the Forbes article emphasized the "creepy" factor throughout.

Even The New York Times Magazine's cover photo proclaims "Hey! You're Having a Baby!" with products spelling out the letters. This is standard journalism as much as Target's practices are standard marketing. The New York Times wants eyeballs, so it only makes sense to have an attention-grabbing headline. But why is the illusion of privacy the most attention-grabbing issue? Duhigg's article was fascinating throughout, and he covered a lot of topics. His article wasn't about Big Corporations stealing our identities; it was about how habits are formed in the brain, how we studied chocolate-hungry rats to find that out, and how those findings eventually led to the successful marketing of Febreze. The creepy factor was a tiny part of the article, yet it's the part that most people remember.

I've been reading a little bit about the psychology of privacy -- why we crave it, why we protect it, when we go overboard with it. Since it's such a detailed topic, I'll refrain from getting specific. The predominant theme I'm noticing, though, is that people simply want control over what others know about them. It isn't that most people are particularly embarrassed about buying milk or beer; they just don't like the idea of being watched without their knowledge. Based on how much attention Duhigg's article has received, it seems to me that a lot of people simply had no idea that their shopping habits were being tracked so carefully by the stores they frequent. Is this true? Were you (yes, you, reader of my mellifluous prose) actually surprised by this info about Target's level of research? If a lot of you say yes, I think Duhigg's article reveals as much about human ignorance as it does human psychology.


blog comments powered by Disqus