Duhigg notes the efforts Target must make not to “spook” customers with obvious behavioral-based targeting. Since the company wanted to target pregnant women who haven’t explicitly notified Target about their pregnancy, they had to use informational camouflage:
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons…. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.” … As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.
As with political scandal, what’s so bothersome about this less the targeting itself — though that is bad for reasons Turow details, more on that below — but the cover-up. Retailers don’t want transparency in their attempts to manipulate your behavior; they want to control how your habits evolve. They understand that the more you know about their techniques, the less effective they will be. And they try to justify themselves with the idea that they know better than us what we really want and their marketing techniques allow us to get out of our way to indulge ourselves how we really want and become who we really want to be. Thus Duhigg concludes with this quote from Target’s targeting guru: “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.” We’re supposed to think that is a good thing. We’re not supposed to think that the company is using the data it has collected on us to shape the possibilities of what we can become, to control the context in which we make our lives and understand ourselves.
- Nathan Jurgenson, Predictive analytics and information camouflage – The New Inquiry
Jurgenson coins the term ‘information camouflage’: companies that mine data about us, discern a pattern they can exploit, and then conceal that knowledge by randomizing the torrent of ads and promotions they send our way so they can conceal that they are on to us, since if we knew we’d change our mental filters.