True Privacy Tales – Targeted Marketing

In 2011, an irate father marched into his local Target store and demanded to know why the second-largest discount chain in the United States was sending his daughter pregnancy-related offers. “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 apologised and promised to investigate, but shortly after he contacted the company’s marketing department responsible for sending out the brochure, the father called back and apologised. It turned out things had been going on behind his back. His daughter was due in August. In short, Target Corporation knew of his daughter’s pregnancy even before she’d told her parents.

All it took was the swipe of a store loyalty card – the type of card that gets you extra discounts or accumulates points for presents. Target’s clever marketers had identified 25 products that, if bought within a certain time-frame, indicated a woman was in the second trimester. The more of the 25 she bought, the more certain the company could be.

It’s been estimated that half of what we do is on “automatic”. Think of when you first learned to drive and how it required all of your effort and concentration. Now, you hop in a car and go from place to place without even thinking about it. The same goes for shopping. Chances are that you regularly visit the same stores and buy the same brands without really thinking about it either.

Getting people to change their habits is hard, but there are certain times when we’re more open to making changes. Moving to another city is an obvious one, some are more subtle. Major life events such as getting married, buying a house, getting divorced – or having a baby. If a marketer can reach us at one of these critical times with bargains and tempting offers, they know they have a good chance of resetting our “automatic”, getting us to return to the same store for years to come.

“… when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.”

Thanks to the father’s complaint, Target did more research on their expectant mother’s marketing programme and found that many of the recipients were freaked out by the corporation’s apparent prescience. So they tweaked their brochures, adding in things a pregnant woman was unlikely to buy; an ad for a lawn mower next to one for diapers or a coupon for wine glasses next to one for infant clothes. Soon-to-be mums quickly spot the offers that interest them and don’t even realise they’ve been specifically targeted.


The source of this tale comes from “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” by Charles Duhigg, published in The New York Times Magazine, Feb 16, 2012.

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