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Stupid NY Times Watch: All the BS That Fits Our Narrative


By Ken Magill

Someone at the New York Times needs a better BS meter.

The Gray Lady last week ran an admittedly interesting piece on predictive analytics employed at Target under the headline “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” The piece reported how the retail chain whenever possible assigns its shoppers a “guest ID” to which it attaches shopping information.

In the article, Target statistician Andrew Pole explained that using guest ID information, the retailer can tell, among other things, if a woman is pregnant. The birth of a child is one of the biggest retail opportunities in the life of a customer. It is a life-changing event that can put even the most ingrained shopping habits up for grabs.

Women in their second trimester tend to buy lots of unscented lotions, according to Target.

So if a woman starts buying more unscented lotion, Target sends her coupons for baby stuff, hoping she’ll buy other items while making the baby-related purchases and make Target her store of choice for the other items in the future.

And, of course, what consumer-press story about database marketing would be complete without the privacy-invasion anecdote?

Here we go:

“’If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,’ Pole told me,” reported Times writer Charles Duhigg. “‘We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.’

“About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.

“‘My daughter got this in the mail!’ he said. ‘She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?’

“The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

“On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. ‘I had a talk with my daughter,’ he said. ‘It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.’”

Oh, for crying out loud. Didn’t anyone’s BS meter register even a blip with this nonsense?

Think about the chain of events that must have taken place in order for this anecdote to be true.

The high-school girl has to have identifiably purchased items that indicate she knows she’s pregnant—certain vitamins, for example—and plans to bring a healthy baby to term.

Dad has to have opened his teenage daughter’s advertising mail that was addressed to her by name.

After all, if the teenager is making pregnancy-indicative purchases, she knows she’s pregnant. If she knows she’s pregnant and hasn’t yet told dad, she sure as hell isn’t going to point out to him that Target has sent her baby-related coupons.

But let’s suspend disbelieve for just a bit longer and pretend either dad’s a freakazoid who screens even his daughter’s commercial mail or his daughter is so stupid that while knowing she’s pregnant she shows dad the very coupons that may tip him off. [Okay, maybe that would be a way to soften him up.]

In any case, seeing coupons for baby stuff, freakazoid dad draws the certifiably insane conclusion that Target is encouraging his teenage daughter to get pregnant and that coupons are an effort to convince her to take the plunge.

“Wow, these coupons are offering some great deals on baby stuff. Too bad I can’t use them. Heeey, wait a minute,” freakazoid dad must think his daughter will conclude.

Then—without speaking to his daughter about the coupons, or speaking to her and getting a denial—freakazoid dad actually takes the time to drive to Target, get a manager and complain. During the conversation, the manager has to have taken freakazoid dad’s phone number down and filed it away for follow-up.

Then freakazoid dad goes home and talks about the incident some more. Finally, the daughter fesses up. Behold the power of coupons.

Meanwhile, the Target manager thinks: “You know what? I’m not real busy today. Maybe I should call freakazoid dad up and apologize a second time for those baby coupons his daughter got in the mail. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than invite more abuse over an issue I can’t possibly explain or resolve.”

Yeah, right.

Notably, other than anecdotally second hand, freakazoid dad wasn’t quoted in the piece. Why wasn’t he quoted? Because he doesn’t … friggin’ … exist. That’s why.

The Times attributed the anecdote to “an employee who participated in the conversation.” Was it the manager? If so, the manager might still have the man’s number. Or at least the manager might remember the man’s name.

If it wasn’t the manager, Duhigg does not recount any effort to verify the story with the manager.

Duhigg also does not recount any effort to contact freakazoid dad. He simply swallowed the whole line of BS and ran with it.

Why? Because it makes his story, that’s why.

I’ve written for a bunch of editors over the years. I can’t think of one who wouldn’t have demanded verification of the freakazoid-dad anecdote before agreeing to publish it.

Apparently, Duhigg and his editors at the New York Times aren’t as demanding as even an average trade-press editor—or at least certainly not when an anecdote fits their anti-marketing narrative.


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