You might remember the headline from a few years back: “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did”. Target was tracking intimately detailed information on its customers’ buying habits and using it to tailor ads. This came to light when a man contacted a local Target store, outraged by a flyer for diapers and cribs addressed to his teenage daughter.
Turned out, Target was more clued in than Dad was.
Target found that certain combinations of purchases—like unscented lotion and prenatal vitamins—often predicted a baby on the way. The superstore could even accurately estimate a woman’s due date. They acted on that information with relevant mail coupons—with the hope of turning new families into lifelong customers.
The example illustrates just how powerful customer data tracking can be. It also shows data’s dark side: many people found the incident downright creepy.
On the one hand, it’s great to get offers for stuff you actually want. Or get information that’s tailored to your interests and preferences. But when you realize just how much companies can find out about you, it all starts to seem a little sinister. Today, companies willing to pay can learn your ethnicity, income, marital status, including whether you’ve been divorced, online activity, political affiliation, and much more.
There’s little regulation of these kinds of practices. The collection and use of customer data has come a long way in a short time, and the rulebook is still being written. But with today’s talk of “big data,” surveillance, and the digital footprints we’re all leaving behind, there’s no question that we’ll be hearing about these issues in the years to come.
Where should companies draw the line between helpful and intrusive? And what’s the role of a player like a printer, who may help a company buy and understand a customer mailing list, develop a marketing strategy, and implement a mail campaign?
There are no hard and fast rules yet. But people are starting to have the right conversations about data ethics. As with most ethical issues, transparency is key. Above all, companies should ask themselves whether they’re keeping customers’ best interests at heart.
Plenty of questions still remain, and we don’t have all the answers. One thing’s for sure, though: we’ll be paying attention to how the ethics of data use evolve. And we’ll be advising our clients on how to do right by their customers.
What’s your take on the ethics of customer data? If you need help understanding how to collect and use data, get in touch with Oregon.