Personalization Is Creepy . . . but Who Cares?

By | February 5, 2013

A study by JWT reinforces what we are hearing on a regular basis now . . . people think the fact that marketers can get a 360-degree view of their behavior and use that information to target them is creepy.  But hey, if it benefits them, who cares?

Here’s the “anxious factor” in play:

Percentage of American and British adults who agree with the following after learning that, through data analysis, companies can predict what they’ll want or need and create customized offers for them as individuals:

  • It feels like Big Brother is watching me  (65%)
  • The idea of being tracked and analyzed makes me nervous (64%)
  • It makes me feel violated (51%)
  • I think this will help simplify my life (48%)

As we might expect, Millennials (18-34 year olds) are less likely to feel this way than Gen-Xers and Boomers, but the percentages were fairly tight. But in the end, self-interest wins out. These same respondents also said:

  • It’s okay with me as long as I save money  (64%)
  • It’s okay with me as long as I get relevant offers  (62%)
  • It’s okay with me as long as it makes shopping easier (56%)

It’s interesting that the percentages saying “It’s okay with me if . . .” are nearly identical to those saying, “It creeps me out.”

The takeaway? People will accept being uncomfortable as long as it saves them time or benefits their wallets.

It reminds me of a survey I read just recently about coupons and how people will drive very much out of their way (up to 20 miles, if I remember correctly) to use a coupon worth just a few dollars. I thought that was interesting considering that, with the price of today’s gas, it could end up costing these people money to use the coupon, but apparently the lure of “saving money” was stronger than logic and reason. Consumers are not always rational creatures, are they?


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8 thoughts on “Personalization Is Creepy . . . but Who Cares?

  1. Amy

    I think it’s less that people don’t care, and more that they feel they can’t do anything about it. All the retailers are doing it, so the least they can do is compensate us for it. I have a Safeway club card, and I upgraded it to their Just for u program because I know the only way to opt out of being tracked is to use only cash in their store and give up my safeway club card (which leads to a cost surcharge, since only club members get the sale prices).

    If I knew where I could shop that wouldn’t cause me to be tracked without having to switch over to 100% cash only purchases, I would likely make the switch (barring any unreasonable thresholds, such as having to drive far, or prices being more expensive than I can afford). So for now, the cost vs. privacy ratio is such I don’t have much of a choice in the matter. I will still occasionally opt out, and make cash only purchases with items I don’t want to trigger marketing that is absolutely irrelevant to me.

    I suspect that if there was more digging done, people would admit that part of the reason they don’t “mind” is that they don’t feel like there’s anything they CAN do about it… so why waste the time worrying if they’re getting something out of it.

  2. Thaddeus B. Kubis


    Interesting article, but I suggest that a clear definition of traditional personalization vs. 360 Predictive Personalization needs to be provided. Using a persons name and perhaps some geographic information would not in my experience fit the definition of predictive personalization. Experiential marketing does have the potential of abuse and invasion, but as with many marketing tools the true question is what will the consumer allow to be used (and gathered) and what limits if any will an advertiser/marketer place on their gathering or use of the personal data.

  3. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    Good points, Thaddeus. I guess I figured that, for this audience, it is safe to assume that readers know and understand the difference, but one could also make the point that we should never assume, right? Although the fact that predictive personalization is clear from the context and the header on the data, I suppose clarifying it in the text, too, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  4. Joe Manos

    There’s another angle to this discussion as follows.

    As marketers build more persona information on an individual they become more targeted and don’t waste the time of that person with wasted marketing touches. In fact in some cases they may remove them from their marketing list for specific products and services because a “fit” doesn’t exist.

    Where they do see a “fit”, they start to provide information and offers that “meet” the prospects perceived needs based on the previous touches.

    In the end this will benefit all concerned – the consumer or business and the company executing the target marketing programs. It leads to sales ready opportunities and a better ROI.

  5. Pete

    I rather dislike the tracking as it is often a huge waste of time for me — I’m in the publishing industry, so I often look at book listings — review cover designs in certain genres (perhaps for ideas about a client’s book), etc.

    The result is that I’m constantly being given offers that I have zero interest in seeing or buying — simply because I looked at a book about X or Y…

    The second aspect (that drives me nuts) is that offers and ads frequently are for things I recently purchased. With a move to a new home, I bought window coverings. All my windows are now covered. But I get frequent ads offering me window coverings. I also purchased a BBQ grill for the patio — after spending $400 for a grill, I’m now getting lots of BBQ grill ads. But I’m out of that market, probably for then next 10 years … So how does this benefit me?

    While not an internet thing, AFTER I refinanced a mortgage a few years back, I was inundated with mortgage refinance offers in the mail. What lame brain came up with that plan? I HAD my refinancing — how is it possible that I’d submit to additional fees (and considerable hassle) to immediately go back and do another refinance?

    So, in my experience, this “tailored” marketing is mostly a waste of both my time and the time and money of the sellers. They’d be better off sending me random ads, so that I might receive information or ideas before I shop for and purchase something.

    The Safeway card thing is annoying, too. My club card is in a fake name at a vacant lot address in another state. However, as a favor to elderly friends, I’ve occasionally picked up some things at the store for them. Now I get “adult diaper” ads and “vitamin supplement” ads kicked out by the ad printer by the cash register — yet more lamebrain marketing.

    And, yeah, it’s creepy.

  6. Joe Manos

    Pete all great examples of poor marketing practices!

    When marketers start to leverage persona based insight marketing – trust me – you will respond and be rewarded by it.

  7. Scott Draeger, M-EDP

    Great post.

    I would choose to support the concept of predictive (proactive) marketing better than the downsides of reactive marketing problems that Pete identified.

    I think of privacy sort of like if I was in the store. Other patrons can often see what is in my cart. The person beind me at the checkout would see that I am nearly 40 and see my cart. These people, and the security camera can clearly see this, and they can make assumptions. They might assume the Cap’n Crunch cereal is for my kids. On that, they are wrong. I love that stuff. I don’t find it creepy at all. I find it helpful.

    Except, as Pete points out. January and February are a real hassle for inbox management. I bought someone a Team Australia Rugby shirt, so I get marketing for that. I sent some flowers and chocolate to my sick Grandmother, so I get a ton of spam about that. And, it’ll take Amazon 6 months to figure out that the Furby, Coffee press pot, K-cups, Santa flamingoes, and Chicago Bears yard gnome weren’t for me. I think purchases in December (or other major holiday seasons that the engine can intuit) should be given amnesty from opt in marketing programs and predicitive analysis to avoid frustrating the customer.

    Great post, and up until now, some great comments. I like that Heidi’s articles spawn good comments.

  8. Paul J Gardner

    There’s a BIG difference between CUSTOMIZATION and PERSONALIZATION.

    And, as Joe suggests, an even bigger difference between a marketer’s ability to collect data, and having the competence, insight and intelligence to use it wisely.

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