Predictive advertising: How retailers know you're pregnant long before you start buying nappies

I bet every article you’ve ever read about the future of advertising has begun with a brain-shrinkingly predictable reference to Tom Cruise borefest Minority Report.

On target: US retailer a little too effective at data crunching

Well, not this one!

I’m going to use a much more sophisticated movie reference to introduce this article: Back to the Future Part II. You know that bit where old Biff steals the DeLorean and travels back in time from 2015 to 1955 to give Marty McFly’s Sports Almanac to young Biff? Young Biff then makes millions ‘predicting’ the outcome of the sporting events listed in the almanac. As a result the entire course of history is changed - all thanks to a bunch of data that even an intellectually challenged Biff Tannen can interpret.

This is almost exactly the same as ‘anticipation marketing’ or ‘predictive advertising’ – a potentially brave new world in which brands will be able to foretell what people are going to do before they do it and target them with scintillatingly relevant ads simply by analysing and acting upon the behavioural information they have gathered.

In the US retailer Target has already figured out how to tell if women are pregnant long before they start buying nappies. By analysing sales patterns it has discovered that women in the early stages of pregnancy start buying a combination of 25 products including unscented lotion, cotton wool and vitamins. It then sends these ‘expectant mums’ money off vouchers for all the things they’ll need later on in pregnancy like talcum powder and baby wipes. So effective are Target’s data crunching skills that it recently found itself in hot water after figuring out that a teenage girl was pregnant before her father. The angry dad stormed into a Target store in in Minneapolis demanding an explanation as to why his little darling had been sent ads for maternity clothes and nursery furniture. He later had to apologise to the store manager after his daughter admitted that she was in fact in the pudding club.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. On top of the virtual fingerprints we leave on every website we visit, our Facebook Likes and our location-based breadcrumb trail, we also happily tell search engines our deepest, darkest secrets. (Just think for a moment about what Google knows about you that your partner doesn’t). Add a bit of social media sentiment analysis and Nate Silver-esque trends interpretation into the mix and suddenly the evil marketing geniuses are just an algorithm away from knowing what you’re going to do before you know it yourself. Then we’re in a world of ads for contraception before you’ve even decided to out for a drink and mobile money off vouchers for Mothercare during the fumbling taxi ride home.

Of course, this has all been technically possible for a while, but well-founded privacy concerns have kept a more intuitive advertising future at bay. However, the fact that anticipation marketing formed part of this week’s opening AdWeek Europe panel discussion suggests that the concept of predictive advertising may be about to enter the mainstream consciousness. Whether you like the concept or not, the reality is that sophisticated analysis of the past now means that brands can confidently predict the future without the need for 1.21 gigawatts of power or a flux capacitor.

Gareth Jones is global brand and marketing director at LBi

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