You probably already know that companies collect information about you both by collating information about your shopping habits and by augmenting that with information other companies have collected about you. All of this is put together and the resulting analytics is used to shape/personalise advertising for you.
But did you know that Target can tell if you are pregnant even when you haven’t told anyone? Spooky stuff. They can detect that your pattern of shopping is gradually or abruptly changing and channel a huge amount of advertising to you before all the other shops can get you after your child is born. You might only be planning your next ultrasound but Target is already pushing products you’ll need down the line. This is called ‘guest marketing analytics’ and is helping employ a huge number of mathematicians who surely dreamed of making more of their talents once upon a time.
This New York Times article, How companies learn your secrets, goes a fair bit further still and delves into cognitive and behaviour sciences. Again, you’d think psychologists are out there healing people or preventing psychopaths from committing more crimes. Wrong. Psychologists are out there tweaking rats’ brains in order to sell you an extra toilet brush.
Habits are complex yet simple phenomena. They take ages to cement and take in loads of information in a three-step process: first there’s a cue and trigger that automatically activate pathways in your brain, then there’s the physical, mental or emotional routine, and finally a reward that will help your brain decide if a habit is worth bumping up in its importance and usefulness. Over time the cue-routine-reward loop becomes more automatic via neuro-chemical processes to form a bond strong enough to unleash a craving. Rewarding cues can be short and subtle enough as to avoid our attention altogether, but potent enough to help cement powerful habits that companies exploit to sell us more stuff (that we probably don’t need).
The articles goes on to explain how habit loops are cleverly exploited by marketers: air fresheners that seem to have no purpose except to mark a reward point in a habit loop, companies that track habits and sell you swimsuits in spring, sunscreen in summer and dieting products in winter, tracking major life events when habits have a tendency to become malleable so companies can swoop down on your changing habits. The biggest of this is when you are expecting a child. And the best time to catch you before anyone else does is when the pregnancy is still young. Apparently Target assigns shoppers a ‘pregnancy score’. ‘Cue-routine reward calculators’ looks at patterns of products purchased and identify appropriate habit-eliciting incentives. Sadly companies even figured out that pregnant women hate the idea of companies working out their reproductive status, so they now send out lots of coupons including ones for non-pregnancy related items in order to fool the women into thinking they aren’t targeted. Clever and probably unethical.
Fortunately all this psychological research can also help us identify cues for overeating or other undesirable behaviour that we might want to change and so can be used for positive personal ends. However the fact remains that most of this research is done by and for companies that really just want to sell you more nappies and fragrance-free lotion. At this point I get sad… our best psychological, statistical and mathematical minds managed to produce work that serves corporate interests and help make us into consumerist animals who reach for products out of sheer manipulated habit. But that’s our world unfortunately.