[telecom] How Companies Learn Your Secrets

How Companies Learn Your Secrets

By CHARLES DUHIGG February 16, 2012

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in

2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: "If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn't want us to know, can you do that? "

Pole has a master's degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. "The stereotype of a math nerd is true," he told me when I spoke with him last year. "I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics."

As the marketers explained to Pole - and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop - new parents are a retailer's holy grail. Most shoppers don't buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target - cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company's primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it's a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers' shopping habits are ingrained, it's incredibly difficult to change them.


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Monty Solomon
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Finding out if a woman is pregnant may be the "Holy Grail" of marketing, but the information is worth a lot more to others, and the ways that the information is obtained cover the gamut from voluntary disclosure to criminal invasion of privacy.

Nonetheless, such information is so valuable that it will be gathered

- even if those seeking it need to break the law in order to get it. The "usual" buyers cover every area of modern life:

  • Real Estate Brokers
  • Health Care providers
  • Car Salesmen
  • Insurance Salesmen
  • Retailers
  • Delivery services

... and those are only the people who /really/ have something they want to sell and that a pregnant woman might want to buy. On top of that, there are organizations that want to find out her condition for other purposes(1):

  • Potential employers, who might want to avoid paying for pregnancy leave and/or increased insurance co-payments.
  • Landlords, who might want to avoid leasing to someone who'll have a child, or who might want to limit the choices of apartment she'll have.

A pregnant woman is a target for marketing (or disincentive) campaigns from every one of the links in this long chain, each of which has a vested interest in passing the information on to others.

That's the "demand" side of the scale, so let's look at "supply": While retailers such as Target might be willing to bear the cost of gathering and interpreting statistical clues, most of the firms that consume pregnancy reports insist on more definite, and therefore more easily usable, evidence - and they don't care where it comes from. The obvious sources are -

  • Social-networking sites, which sell such information as their primary business.
  • Retailer "Loyalty Card" programs, which retain purchase records for pregnancy test kits or pregnancy-related products.
  • Telephone calling records, which reveal calls to Obstetricians, or Diaper Services, or to insurance brokers.
  • Web access records, which show an employee's access to sites like "Planned Parenthood", or other self-help venues that pregnant women frequent.
  • Emails spool files, which show addresses that can be easily traced to doctors, hospitals, insurance providers, etc.
  • Clerks and other menial workers who have access to health-care records.

The obvious point is that the twenty-somethings who grew up with the wired world are now going on their first big "acquisition binge": their first house, their first "family" car, their first life-insurance policy, their first set of infant clothes, toys, cribs, and medical care. As the original story pointed out, the buying and brand habits they form during the first pregnancy are likely to follow on to others, and to their circle of friends and cow-orkers.

The less-obvious point is that wired world is so ingrained in the day-to-day habits of newly pregnant twenty-something women that they are often unaware of its avaricious demand for information: the electronic world is simply getting harder and harder to avoid. At the same time a pregnant woman is juggling the tasks of finding a job that has "good" health care, finding a "safe" car, finding a child-friendly apartment or "nice" neighborhood, and debating other choices, she is unlikely to spend the time to secure her status from prying eyes (assuming she is even aware that her status is a sought-after commercial commodity, or that she even *can* protect it). The last bastion of privacy is eroding as quickly as all the others: reproduction is now another data point on a corporate chart(2).


  1. There, are, of course, second-tier consumers for pregnancy reports: urban planners, Deans of college alumni, and those who forecast demand for all manner of childhood services, from private schools to dairies to vendors of "early childhood" education products. By and large, they don't need "advance" information, and won't pay for it. I'm only talking about the businessmen who crave advance notice.
  2. Of course, women who choose not to advertise a pregnancy have /some/ defenses available to them: paying for pregnancy-test kits with cash, visiting "My-first-baby" sites from a library or school computer, using assumed names on social-networking sites, and being willing to read their HMO's disclosure policies. Such tactics are, at best, a "rear guard" action, which will slow down, but not stop, the data flow: after all, /every/ businessman who pays for the information is eager to resell it, as quickly as possible, to anyone who doesn't compete with /him/.
Reply to
Bill Horne

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