Make Marketing History

The views of a marketing deviant.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Make Marketing Mythical.

Target crunched their data so that they could predict when women were pregnant - they did so in order to allow them to market all sorts of products to their families. There was outrage. We've all heard the story. I heard it again today. But is it true?

I had a memory of finding out that it wasn't true some years ago and I turned up this post that paints the whole episode as a theoretical discussion at a conference being reported as fact a year later.  

But this was something pointedly new, and I turned my head to scan the audience for any reactions. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Normally, for marketing projects, Predictive Analytics predicts buying behavior. Here, the thing being predicted was not something marketers care about directly, but, rather, something that could itself be a strong predictor of a wide range of shopping needs. After all, the marketer's job is to discover and pounce on demand. You can think of this predictive goal as a "surrogate" (sorry) for the pertinent shopping activities a retail marketer is paid to care about. 

A few months after Pole's presentation, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg interviewed me. Exploring, he asked for interesting discoveries that had come from Predictve Analytics. I rattled off a few and included pregnancy prediction, pointing him to the online video of Pole's talk, which had thus far been receiving little attention, and introducing him to Pole. I must admit that by now the privacy question had left my mind almost entirely. 

One year later, in February 2012, Duhigg published a front-page New York Times Magazine article, sparking a viral outbreak that turned the Target pregnancy prediction story into a debacle. 
The article "How Companies Learn Your Secrets," conveys a tone that implies wrongdoing is a foregone conclusion. It punctuates this by alleging an anonymous story of a man discovering his teenage daughter is pregnant only by seeing Target's marketing offers to her, with the unsubstantiated but tacit implication that this resulted specifically from Target's Predictive Analytics project.

I haven't yet watched the video of the original talk, but this sounds like reasonable doubt to me. And still the myth prevails. Because despite all the claims marketers make about data, they're still too lazy to check even the basic facts.


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