A few years back we talked about how the concept of the "uncanny valley" could be applied to targeted advertising
. Of course, the general concept of the uncanny valley
is usually discussed in the field of robotics. It's the notion that people are comfortable with robots that clearly look like robots, but at a point where they become too similar to humans, but not actually human-like, people feel rather uncomfortable. However, if a robot appears fully human, then people go back to being comfortable with them -- even to the point of identifying with them and feeling empathy for them. The problem is the area where they're "too human" but just different enough to just... feel "off" that somehow makes it "creepy." As we noted the same thing really was kind of true for targeted advertising. As advertising gets more "targeted" it seems to creep people out, because they feel like they're being spied on.
A perfect example of that is seen in this recent NYTimes Magazine piece, talking about the details of how Target mines its purchasing data
to figure out who's pregnant and when they're due. And it's not because they're buying diapers or something like that:
The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole's colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.
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. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.
But, of course, Target then appears to have run into the "uncanny valley" problem of having just enough info to target ads... but doing so in a way that feels creepy
"If we send someone a catalog and say, 'Congratulations on your first child!' and they've never told us they're pregnant, that's going to make some people uncomfortable," Pole told me. "We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you're following the law, you can do things where people get queasy."
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, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
"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 didn't have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man's daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. "I had a talk with my daughter," he said. "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."
Target appears to have recognized just how creepy this appeared -- and once they discovered that the reporter was working on this story they cut off his access to the researcher and wouldn't talk to him at all, other than to make bland PR statements about "delivering outstanding value," and, later, to try to convince him not to publish his story.
However, there are indications that Target tried to cross the uncanny valley.... by making the extremely targeted advertising appear more "life like" by not being "too perfect." That is they still sent targeted ads, but mixed them in with unrelated ads, so people wouldn't realize how targeted they were:
"We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, 'Here's everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,' " one Target executive told me. "We do that for grocery products all the time." But for pregnant women, Target's goal was selling them baby items they didn't even know they needed yet.
"With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly," the executive said. "Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We'd put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We'd put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
"And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn't been spied on, she'll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don't spook her, it works."
I'm sure that this disturbs some people, who may sense that there's "trickery" going on here, but I'm not sure that's the case. It seems like this actually creates something rather useful. After all, perfectly targeted ads actually provide useful information
in that it's ads/deals/coupons targeted for exactly what we need, such that we'll actually save money on the key things we want. That's a benefit to consumers. But if it's done in a way that doesn't feel as creepy, then there aren't those lingering concerns of being tracked -- and that seems a more reasonable fear.