Getting Past The Uncanny Valley In Targeted Advertising

from the from-creepy-to-useful dept

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.

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Companies: target

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Comments on “Getting Past The Uncanny Valley In Targeted Advertising”

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A Guy (profile) says:

I also find the whole targeted advertisement thing creepy. I need to know how and why I am being tracked, how that information is being used, and who may potentially see the data. Is the fact that I let a friend use my computer to look up medical symptoms lead back to me, possibly coming to the attention of a HR department when applying for jobs? Could my curiosity about physics and engineering lead to governmental actors like homeland security wondering why I’m reading about high energy particle interactions?

No one is going to reveal their trade secrets to me, so I just do my best to ignore most ads and keep my information mostly private.

It’s actually become a disincentive for customer loyalty to me. If your information is spread around between different stores and online services, it makes it more difficult to build an informative profile.

Anonymous Coward says:


Think about it for a second, this is a two way street, they collect data and analyze it, you can too and find out things about them that they probably would not want you to know.

For example based on data available one could probably predict when they are going to have a firesale to get rid of stock, find out if a store is more likely to be closed or not and so stay clear of that place for employment.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t have a problem with a particular store monitoring my purchases with them and using that information to better serve my needs as they perceive them; this seems little more than applying modern technology to the traditional vendor/customer relationship.

However, were the store to share that information with anybody else, then it becomes a privacy issue and the store has violated my trust. Since corporations often engage in a diversity of commerce across a spectrum of markets, the sharing of personally identifiable shopping trends should at most be based upon the branding of the vendors — information should not be shared between corporations, nor between what might reasonably be perceived as different companies within the same corporation (e.g., Kmart and Sears), without explicit approval of the customer.

monkyyy (profile) says:

it is a bit creepy but i think an easy way to get through the valley would be to have a human readable eula explaining what hey are doing w/ ur data

im fine w/ gmails ads because they make enough mistakes about what im interested in that no human would make, those “get the irs off ur back” ads showing up mostly when im reading a political newsletter isnt to hard to see how that mistake was made

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:


And the answer is…spend cash only.

Don’t use credit or debit cards.

Don’t use coupons mailed to you (they may have some identifying code on them).

Don’t use club cards. They are specifically designed to add your purchases to their database, with identifying information.

If you do these things, they will only have information regarding what they sold, not who they sold it to. If you do, do these things, you are giving them not only permission to track you, but you are supplying them with personally identifiable information so that they can track you.

abc gum says:

“Target appears to have recognized just how creepy this appeared”

If it appears creepy then it probably is, but they are only concerned about appearances and attempt to cover it up rather than – you know – stop doing creepy shit.

So they make it less obvious to the casual observer whilst in the background developing more intrusive strategies. Consumer information aggregation across businesses has the potential to take creepy to the next level. I’m not sure if it is even demonstrably cost effective for a business or whether these people just simply like to spy on everyone.

Soon, if not already, the health insurance industry and a host of others will set premiums based upon information gleaned from your loyalty program(s), credit card transactions and social media postings. The automobile insurance industry is already offering a discount if you allow them to track your ass via GPS.

Have you seen the tags in the grocery stores which attempt to put a number on the “healthiness” of products? When, not if, this information is used to determine your health insurance premium(s) there will be incentive for the product producers to adjust their numbers such that consumers will choose their product over the competitor based upon that number. Since it is difficult and expensive to actually make a more healthy product, bribery will rule the grocery store isles – much more than it already does.

Maybe I’ll go back to only using cash and wear those glasses with a built-in mustache just to mess with their facial recognition systems. At this point, I doubt they realize just how ridiculous their whole realm of thinking is. Oh yeah … and we are paying for all this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Trying to hide the fact that you are tracking individual customers is way creepier than anything that is happening otherwise. Not only is it it creepy appearing when they get the “right” ad for you, but it’s doubly creepy when you realize they are watching you all the time.

This sort of thing is “effecient”, but it is also very invasive. Having that much sorted customer information is a huge risk. In theory, things could get out about you that perhaps you don’t want anyone to know. Why should they be allowed to keep this level of profile on anyone?

The US seems woefully lacking in privacy protection.

Anonymous Coward says:

Social Engineering Campaign

Those that freely share bits of information they have gleaned about others are called gossips. I don’t even know what those that charge for the information are called. Time to start a social engineering campaign equating the sharing or use of such information to the town gossip – even though what they are doing might be legal they are someone to shun.

leichter (profile) says:

Forbes picked up on this with two articles. One pretty much summarized what the Times said; the other looked into the question of what limits there were on Target should they decide to sell this data. Their conclusion: At present, pretty much none. That data is Target’s to do with as they like. Were they to have a privacy policy, they would be bound by it – but they’ve never published one.

One person they spoke to is certain that this will soon change – that within 5 years, there might be limits on what data Target can collect, and there will certainly be limits on what they can sell. I pretty sure that’s true.

By the way, it’s important to keep in mind that Target – and every other company that does targeted advertising – always emphasizes that the positive value to the customer in delivering ads that describe products they might actually need. But that’s of course not why the companies are doing this. The point is to sell more products. In fact, it’s pointed out in these articles that the reason Target is so interested in discovering pregnant women and marketing to them is that it’s long been known that young families tend to “bond” to certain brands (and likely places to buy them). Get them early and they’ll keep coming back. Those early special discounts will be repaid many times over by full-price purchases.

Is there something wrong with this? Probably not, but just as there’s a line where “clever” becomes “creepy”, there’s a line where “attractive” becomes “manipulative”. It’s never clear where the line is until after you’ve crossed it.

Many years ago, the group I worked for at a large company moved to a brand new facility. There was a committee that helped in designing various amenities, like the cafeteria. One decision was on the color. A consultant on the matter recommended (I think) yellow, because studies had shown that people bought more food in a yellow cafeteria. OK ? but who is going with yellow good for? It’s certainly good for the company running the cafeteria; but for everyone else working there, probably not. Whenever you see clever ideas like data mining to find pregnant women ? ask yourself: Cui bono? Who benefits?

— Jerry

pr (profile) says:

Where nobody knows you're name

The denizens of Cheers might want to drink where everybody knows their names, but I prefer to shop where nobody knows my name. If they don’t have my personal data, they can’t abuse it.

That’s why I won’t go into a Kroger for any reason. They pretty much demand that you hand over your identity to shop there. I just don’t think it’s worth it to save fifteen cents on a can of peas.It’s kind of hard to avoid them because they like to buy out local chains, leaving them the same on the outside while they turn them into Krogers on the inside. Kind of like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

actually getting annoyed at targeted ads.

I’m actually getting annoyed at the targeted ads.

Recently I was looking at sim only mobile subscriptions, and I have visited and bought a subscription at, but since then almost all ads I see are T-mobile ads, with a sparse Vodafone ad in between.

Yes, AdSense, I get it, very clever, you know that I visited t-mobile, but that does not mean that that’s the only ad I want to see! Especially because they are of no use to me, and make me want to grab for the nearest Adblock Plus extension even quicker.
Especially because they are all animated ads, instead of the previous rather inobtrusive text ads. Why, Google, have you caved in to the advertisers moronic idea that we want to see flashing banners everywhere?

I guess, it serve me right for using a browser that doesn’t have a NoScript extension.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:


The other extra “advantage” to this sort of thing, or so they tell you, is that they can more efficiently stock a store.

Funny thing happened when they renovated the Safeway in my town is that they had to know from sales scans that farmed salmon just didn’t sell here. Fish farms aren’t popular in these parts so people insist on fish and salmon marked wild.

There were other stocking mistakes where the store was stocked with things people don’t buy here or in quantities they don’t buy them in.

The fish screw up took a week to fix and the rest of it is still sorting itself out.

If the idea, which they claim it is with loyalty cards and such, is better targeted ads and stores stocked with what customers buy then this experience is that it failed.

Fin says:

I (^) Target Adverts

Well perhaps saying i love them is a bit ott.

What i mean to say is i have no issue with transparently targeted ads.

After searching for a media centre tower, without too much luck, i popped onto youtube to catch up on the Angry Video Game Nerd. One of the adverts sitting there was for a HTC tower from Maplin, sure enough i ended up going to the store and buying it.

I am well aware Google uses my searchs to direct the AdCenter and all that has happened is i have been shown an ad for something i actually wanted and the content creator has got some money for unintrusively advertising it on behalf of Maplin.

Prehaps i will only buy something i see on google ads 1 in 10000 times, but if there relevant and i know why there there and i know its supporting something i enjoy then i’m more likely to consider them.

Deirdre (profile) says:

I was trying to figure out why our office was sent a complimentary box of newborn diapers. If they thought anyone was about to give birth they were really off the mark. However we do go to the local Target to buy unscented soap for the washrooms, big bottles of hand sanitizer for the staff and to set out for the clients and big bags of cotton balls that we to clean the office dogs’ ears out with.

One mystery explained. We donated the diapers to a local children’s charity.

Anonymous Coward says:


I also don’t have an issue with the gathering of the information per se, so long as they keep that information to themselves. I really don’t think I would object to the sharing within a corporation (i.e. Kmart/Sears), but agree that explicit permission should be granted by the “target” of the data (me). My concern lies more with how well the company anonomizes and protects the data from theft. Kmart and Sears just want to sell me diapers and lawnmowers, and make sure that I bring the kids when I shop so that I spend more, criminal and government agencies have altogether different uses for the data.

CSI Target says:

Literal Target

It appears Target takes its name too literally, and sees its customers as targets. It has long been a very creepy company, and reportedly even has its own sophisticated crime lab.

This should be an opt-in process where people request data profiling and ad targeting. What a bunch of smug weasels, all proud of themselves for tricking pregnant women by mixing up the ads (wine glasses next to baby clothes…lol…idiots.)

You absolutely cannot count on them handling private information responsibly. The best thing to do is pay cash as much as possible, and spread around your shopping to various companies.

dcee (profile) says:


So they make it less obvious to the casual observer whilst in the background developing more intrusive strategies. Consumer information aggregation across businesses has the potential to take creepy to the next level. I’m not sure if it is even demonstrably cost effective for a business or whether these people just simply like to spy on everyone.

That my friend, is a really good question.

Lord Binky says:

What is there to fear?

I don’t know why this is scary. Maybe because I’ve done data mining and machine learning algorithms I know that where there isn’t a boogey man. I personally want targetted ads. I’d be happy to never see a tampon ad again. I crack up at old spice ads that bust through a tissue commercial while watching tv shows that I would not have figured they had calculated that I am the target demographic for the show.

If I got an Ad for stool softeners the day after I buy 15 lbs of cheese for a party, I’d be thankful that just in case I ate it all on my own, they wanted to help.

Really though, if I got Ads for electronics,tools,hobbies, and pet stuff instead of ads for feminine hygine,cars(I don’t buy cars every other week, my interest in this is not consistant), huggies, or clothing brands I detest, what is wrong with it?

Let’s all run in fear from the savings!AHHH!!!

GP says:

I’ve gotta wonder if Safeway thinks I go away for the winter
because I only shop there from spring to fall. More to
do with being less convieinent to get to by bus than bike.
^_- Of course they could eliminate that possibility by
noticing the ramping up of paper product/non-perishable
food purchases in October, having to go to multiple
locations to get enough of some things before the snow
lands. ^_^ I tend to buy out the shelf of some things
that are bulky and don’t get adaquate shelf space in my
stocking up frenzy, thus looking like this guy on the
way home: ^_^

As I read this article I was trying to think of
coincidental purchase patterns that might make Target
think a man was pregnant. :-0

Alex Fatcow (user link) says:

less creepy ads

“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”- Exactly! That is the main point we started to make ads more like an art more like something creative instead of making something simple and useful for the target market. I have been writing recently scenario for one ad and there is a couple having romantic dinner and when I showed the brief to my colleague she proposed to put the couples table in the water. Just because it makes surrealistic effect. It?s insane!!!

Jahanzaib Ashraf (user link) says:

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