Dear Target, I'm NOT pregnant (Or Wait, Am I?)

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Dear Target, I'm NOT pregnant (Wait, am I?)
Dear Target, I'm NOT pregnant (Wait, am I?)

I buy too much moisturizer, bathroom cleaner, and hand sanitizer. I know this because when I check out at Target the cashier hands me coupons for diapers.

Big Data thinks I'm knocked up. Just so you know, I'm 48 years old and I'm not pregnant.

I don't have children that are pregnant. I don't have friends that are pregnant. Let's be clear, nobody's pregnant. However, my compulsive need to clean and disinfect regularly, has apparently given birth to what appears to be an inexhaustible supply of $2 off coupons for Huggies.

Now we all remember that New York Times story last year about how Target knew this guy's teen daughter was pregnant before he did. Well, I had to Google that story again because when a 48-year-old direct marketing veteran is repeatedly handed diaper coupons from a company that should know its algorithms, she gets a little paranoid.  And then she gets a little nauseous. And then she gets more paranoid. It's a vicious cycle.

It seems (at least according to Target statistician Andrew Pole) that pregnant women in their second trimester buy lots of unscented lotion, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and cotton balls. News flash: So do I.

The point is Target has good data. Hell, the company's not called “Target” for nothing. But as good as Target's data is, I'm not pregnant—just a little OCD when it comes to keeping a tidy bathroom.

But this whole thing got me thinking about something I've known for a long time, but conveniently filed away. What Target, CVS, and Starbucks know about me collectively could fill a book—or at least a couple of mundane chapters. Add in data culled from LinkedIn and Google and we're talking about a sizeable tome.

And what if all these sources—everything from Ann Taylor to Zillow—compared and combined everything they know about me? If someone connected the dots they'd:

a. Know I wasn't pregnant

b. Have a profile that was the envy of the National Security Agency

Now I didn't give Target (or the NSA for that matter) permission to profile me. I just shopped in their store and they tracked my purchasing activity, identified a pattern, and gave me $2 off something they thought I needed. I don't like that they did that without my okay (mostly because it's a little creepy and I'm not pregnant), but when I think about it, I gave a whole lot of other companies the green light to do just that and more with very little incentive.

Take, for example, Starbucks. They don't need to track my purchases (although I'm certain they do) because when I signed up for their loyalty program, I pretty much told them everything. I told them what I like and don't like, that I'm a vegetarian, and when prompted I even shared my date of birth. I have friends who don't know when my birthday is, but Starbucks does and all they did was ask.

Everybody's worried about the government monitoring their cell phone activity, but if you're at all like me, you sold your privacy a long time ago for a free cappuccino and $5 off any $25 allergy relief purchase at CVS.

Note to the NSA: Maybe you could have made this whole thing a lot more palatable if you were just up front about it and offered folks a sizeable discount on trendy fall boots. Okay, that's cavalier in light of the very serious implications of the recent rash of NSA. scandals. But one thing the NSA and Target do have in common is that neither asked if they could track me. At least Target ponied up with coupons.

Still, you have to wonder just what it is that prompts otherwise rational,  security-minded people to recoil at the notion of surveillance while simultaneously posting “real-time” vacation photos on Facebook or exchanging private data for discounts. Is it trust? Convenience? Blissful ignorance? Truthfully, it's probably all those things and something more.

For more information on this topic, read this whitepaper: “Three Reasons We Trade Data for Discounts.”


Michelle Martineau is a senior copywriter at Wilde Agency, where she combines direct and digital marketing best practices with behavioral science in order to get people to act. You can contact her at Michelle.Martineau@WildeAgency.com.

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