The Power of Targeting

This week’s Advertising Age has a story on what happened when it asked one of its reporters to be a guinea pig testing how much specificity a marketing research firm could produce by doing a routine marketing study on the life patterns of one of its reporters.  Using its databases, the unnamed targeting firm produced the following results, as described by the Ad Age reporter in question:

NEW YORK ( — I had to ask: How the hell did they do that?

I’m no neophyte when it comes to targeting — not only do I work at Ad Age, but I cover direct marketing. Yet even I was taken aback when, as an experiment, we asked a database-marketing company to come up with a demographic and psychographic profile of me based on publicly available information. Was it ever spot-on.

The company doing the analysis, which asked to remain nameless, used seven sources of information, including public records and census data, online-shopping data, catalog and retail-purchase history. From that it concluded my date of birth, home phone number and political-party affiliation: Republican (note: I was in high school when I registered). It gleaned the fact that I was a college graduate, that I was married and that one of my parents had passed away. It found that I have a number of bank, credit and retail cards at “low-end” department stores.

It knew not just how long I’ve lived at my house but how much it cost, how much it is worth, the type of mortgage that’s on it and — within a really close ballpark guess — how much is left to pay on it. It estimated my household income — again nearly perfectly — and determined that I am of British descent (here, I fooled the company; I’m also Romanian and Colombian, but the record didn’t show that). Oddly, what didn’t turn up was my occupation or e-mail address.

But that was just the beginning. What followed was the psychographic profile the company was able to compile.

A deep dive
It correctly placed me into various groupings such as: someone who relies more on their own opinions than the recommendations of others when making a purchase, whether it’s clothes or a car; someone who is turned off by loud and aggressive advertising; someone who is family-oriented and has an interest in music, running, sports, computers and is an avid concert-goer; someone who is never far from a web connection generally used to peruse sports and general news updates; and someone who sees health as a core value.

Scary? Certainly there will be people bothered by that level of detail and accuracy.

So, for those keeping score, such is the present state of this always speedily advancing art/science.  As I argued in The Consumer Trap book, the perceptive powers of the corporate overclass have long since dwarfed those of the Census Bureau.  And, obviously, that’s increasingly so.

And, for the record, the profiled Ad Age reporter is a typical navel-gazing yutz who professes himself untroubled by the results of his “spot-on” commercial profiling.  A soul who says he registered Republican as a college student, he writes, “I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the data as much as I was surprised and somewhat impressed by the depth of the profile the company was able to compile.”

Such are the sensitive, far-seeing folks managing the details of our future, ladies and gentlemen, thanks to capitalism.  Other people may be scared, but he himself is impressed.  So, it’s all good.

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