Do Your "Targeted" Customers Feel Like Prey?

Last Updated May 13, 2011 8:48 AM EDT

Thanks to data mining and a mother lode of clever new applications, you can predict which customers will want your product, almost down to an individual.

But there's a dark side to targeting. It reared its ugly head recently, when it was revealed that TomTom, which develops and sells navigational device and apps, had sold behavioral data to law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands.

The cops in Holland used the data to set speed traps. Europe's biggest satellite navigation device maker apologized last week, saying it sold the data believing it would improve traffic safety and reduce bottlenecks.

"We never foresaw this kind of use and many of our clients are not happy about it," Chief Executive Harold Goddijn wrote in an email to customers. He promised that that future licensing agreements would "prevent this type of use."

If you're a little confused, don't worry. Paradoxically, this kind of behavior targeting also represents the future of advertising.

DeeDee Gordon, the president of innovation at Los Angeles-based Sterling Brands says applications that help companies understand the consumer "in a deeper more meaningful way" are in everyone's future.

"These tools track sentiment around products, categories and brands," she says. "Their data allow brands to know how people are feeling about products and brands, who they are, what they are saying, where they are saying it, and when they are saying it. With this type of information, advertisers can reach consumers in a more natural and targeted way."

The targeting can be quite specific, almost to the point of being a little creepy, at least from the perspective of this consumer advocate. Zachary Weiner, who works for a boutique advertising firm called LuxuryReach described one of the innovations â€" new interactive display ads with user recognition.

[They] allow an advertisement itself to go through a facial recognition process which allows the ad to change its target product to any given market segment.

So let's say a user walks by and the advertisement itself will scan his or her face and determine sex and age. If a 30-year-old male walks by, the advertisement might display a commercial for a men's deodorant, yet five minutes later, when a 17-year-old old girl walks by, it may change to a new MP3 player.

This is highly unique as it allows a vast amount of targeting in public places that has never before been possible.

If that sounds a lot like the 2002 Tom Cruise movie Minority Report ("Hello, Mr. Yakamoto, welcome back to the Gap.") then you know your sci-fi. And you probably also can't wait for this technology to bring your customers closer to you.

But hang on. Whether you're using an experimental system, like that described by Weiner, or just doing good old-fashioned behavioral targeting, there's a right way â€" and a wrong way â€" to do it.

"Advertisers want to deliver ads that audiences really want to see," says Hooman Radfar, the CEO of Clearspring, which created a social sharing platform called AddThis. "Consumers like getting deals and product details that squarely match their real-time interests."

They like targeted information. But, not to put too fine a point on it, they don't like being targeted.

What's the difference? European cops knowing where you speed is being targeted. Getting an ad that you want to see, like Google AdSense, is targeted information.

The line may not always be clear, but it's worth paying attention to.

If you can see it.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, or email him directly.

Photo: cliff1066/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the He is at work on a book about customer service issues.