Taboo Data

A friend and former colleague coined the term “taboo data” recently, and I intend to steal it.

By way of background, my friend Trey Peden started seeing wedding ads online after visiting wedding-related sites ahead of his upcoming nuptials.  This targeting should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the current state-of-play of online targeting.  Only one problem: none of the couples in the ads resembles Trey and his intended because his intended is also a man.

Without diving into the churning debate about gay marriage (I’m very much in favor of it, if it makes a difference to you), I find Trey’s take on the situation enlightening.  He knows enough about online targeting to know that if they could divine his imminent (within two months) wedding by his web tracking, they could also glean his sexuality.  In turn, there’s no reason he couldn’t have seen ads with two groom or two bride figurines on top of the cake.  He assumed that these marketers made the decision not to target this way to avoid controversy.  Hence, he coined the term “taboo data.”

Have we created a class of data that we can derive easily but that we can use only at our peril?  Let’s talk about the implications of taboo data.

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Not in front of the monkey!

A few years ago, I proposed the “dinner table rule” for using customer data.  That is, if you could use a piece of consumer information at a family dinner, then you could use it to target digital communications.  Thus, “I heard you went to Victoria’s Secret today” is OK, but “So, you like push-up bras” isn’t.

Over time, permissible discussions change.  I can’t imagine that Walter Cronkite would have envisioned that ads for erectile dysfunction would dominate his successors’ newscasts.  By the same token, Barbie isn’t allowed to say “math class is tough” anymore.

While broad cultural movements define appropriateness of discussions, technology has created new types of discussions wholesale.  Cookies and other technologies freely allow marketers to glean information about individuals that range from trivial (visited ESPN = she likes sports) to potentially sensitive (visited Glucerna’s website = she may have diabetes).  In theory, very little stops marketers from using these data points to target an ad other than laws such as HIPAA, which protects medical records and CIPA which limits communications to children online.

So, what to do about taboo data?

Marketers live in the real world, where it doesn’t pay to alienate customers and potential customers.  On the other hand, people will complain about pretty much anything.  I can’t presume to answer for any marketer other than myself, but I can suggest some questions to ask when considering which data elements to use:

  • How intrinsic is the data point to your business?  In the Glucerna example above, a manufacturer of diabetic supplies might well want to target people who visited the Glucerna website.  A general retailer who sells those supplies, however, might not.
  • How marginalized is your potential audience?  In the example of same-sex weddings, I think it’s safe to say that any couple planning to get legally married and going through the effort of ordering invitations and hiring a caterer does not feel completely marginalized by society.  By contrast, a gay bar might not want to advertise to an individual who simply visited a gay dating site because he might not be out yet.
  • Do the haters matter?  Same-sex marriage, for instance, has dominated headlines all summer.  People feel strongly on both sides of the issue.  In a liberal region, a caterer might not worry about backlash from targeting same-sex weddings.  In a conservative region, a similar caterer might quickly lose a lot of business from potential customers.  Not everyone has the wherewithal to withstand that kind of pressure.  Liberals, myself includes, would like to see marketers take principled stands, but wedding photographers’ kids need shoes, too.

Ultimately, the decision to use taboo data rests with the marketer.  However, instead of tossing the data point out, marketers should make considered decisions on what to use.

Finally, I’d like to add my best wishes to Trey and future husband Brad.  I wish you all the love, happiness and domestic bliss in the world.

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