What do you suppose happens with the info on the forms you fill out to gain access to a web site? How about the record of purchases made with your grocery store loyalty card? Why would anyone want a record of your cable television viewing habits? These questions are at the core of Joseph Turow's book Niche Envy, about marketing discrimination in the digital Age. The answer is disturbing; the confidentiality of your information is only loosely protected, and merchants are eager for every tidbit they can gather about you.
Their purpose is not, in most people's eyes, particularly evil. These companies simply want to sell you more stuff by understanding what you want, when, and where they can most successfully make the offer. Unfortunately, this means that the more that details about you that are consolidated and made available to online retailers, mass mailers, media advertisers and even floor salespeople, the better they succeed. Turow, in tracing the growth of database marketing, shows how the groundwork has already been laid for a marketing world that customizes television ads, Internet pitches, even TV entertainments and news to your taste. And this economic profiling, he concludes, can lead to niche envy.
Niche envy stems from the ability of businesses to identify profitable customers and treat them differently. The 'good' customers may get individual treatment, better parking, concierge service, lower prices. Meanwhile, the 'bad', i.e. unprofitable customers (that pay off their credit cards every month, only buy during sales, return goods too frequently, for example) will be denied these perks, and may even be discouraged from shopping in that store.
This customization may soon reach the TV screen. A 'good' customer may be fed a version of the TV hit show House showing the doc driving a Porsche, while a 'bad' customer may see him in a Chevy. A good customer might see an ad for Gucci at the same time a downmarket viewer is pitched a check-cashing services. The nightly news may send one viewer a lead story about Wall Street, while another viewer learns about a celebrity wardrobe malfunction. Since television has become the public marketplace for America, when we no longer share the same viewing experiences, the impact could further fragment the society.
Some people, sensing that they are being treated as second-class consumers, may try to change their behavior in an attempt to climb into the 'privileged customer' status, to their detriment. For others, envy may turn to resentment. For those of us raised in a U.S. where everyone could walk into a department store and get the same price for the same item, this discrimination may strike us as wrong. Unfortunately, according to Turow, there is little standing in its way except the size of the data processing challenge.
I highly recommend this read for anyone interested in the future of advertising and marketing, or the topic of privacy in the Internet age. It will open your eyes.