Just before you walk out the door, you look in the mirror and fix your hair. You feel excited. You have been set up for a blind date by your best friend. She told you: ‘she is perfect, you will really like her’. Although you trust your best friend, you do what needs to be done when preparing for a blind date: you check out your date’s profile on social media. 

Fast forward. You meet your date at the restaurant and you really hit it off. You ask her about what type of music she likes (although you already know that she is a big Stones fan by the looks of her Facebook page). You ask her if she likes travelling (although you already know she does since she posted pictures from her journeys all over the world). She tells you she has a dog and you respond as if you don’t know (although you already know the breed and the colour). 

Why not tell your date that you already know a lot about her? Why be all secretive about something that everybody does? Because it feels invasive.

The pregnancy prediction score

A precisely timed advertisement can change someone’s purchasing pattern for years. Therefore, a perfectly timed ad can be of great value to a retailer. Research shows that consumers are most open to targeted advertising when going through a major life event such as going to college, getting married, or having a baby. For instance, it is not hard to imagine that a well-timed ad for diapers can persuade a young mother into buying that specific brand for her baby (and sticking to that brand). For a retailer, timing is of the essence. 

To get the timing right, a big American retailer used data from its customers to come up with a so-called ‘pregnancy prediction’ score. The retailer’s analysts were able to make a pregnancy prediction by analysing its customers’ shopping behaviour. For example, they found out that around the beginning of a pregnant woman’s second trimester, she would buy certain unscented lotions. In total, roughly 25 products were identified as pregnancy indicators. By analysing their customer’s purchases and shopping patterns, the retailer was able to identify some of its customers as pregnant. These women would all receive coupons for diapers and baby clothes. By the time these women would have their baby, they would go to that specific retailer. In 2012, the New York Times published an article on this targeted marketing behaviour, resulting in great disbelief amongst the public. Why? Because it made people feel uncomfortable.  

The final threshold

The GDPR distinguishes six lawful bases for the processing of personal data. A processor of personal data would (preferably) base its processing on more than one justification. Once one or more justifications apply, the processor may legally, within the scope of the GDPR, process the personal data. However, although a justification gives the processor the legal right to process the personal data, they may find themselves restricted by a non-legal rule: the "don't be creepy rule".

Imagine the earlier mentioned retailer to be a big EU retailer asking its customers prior consent to collect their personal data for marketing purposes. Legally, this consent would mean that the retailer has a justification to use the personal data for specifically tailored targeted ads. However, in practice, the retailer will consider the creepy rule as a final (moral) threshold. Although the creepy rule is not laid down in legislation, it is important to corporates nevertheless. A regulatory fine might impact the brand value and consumer confidence, a breach of the creepy rule will most definitely.

Using (personal) data to improve targeted advertising will have a positive effect on the customer’s purchase intention. In addition, customers might rather see an ad for something they actually want rather than for something they absolutely don’t. A targeted ad can therefore benefit both customer and company. Given the potential upside, targeted advertisements will be used increasingly. This creates a challenge for companies to strike the right note, bearing the creepy rule in mind. 

Striking the right note is not always that simple. Someone who has recently split up with its boy/girlfriend might not be happy with ads for dating sites. On the other hand, some may welcome it as a way to get back on the horse. Another example: after you lose someone you love, you receive a recommendation for a playlist that the one you lost used to listen to. To some, this will feel intrusive. To others, this will be comforting. These examples illustrate that when ads get more personal, the risk to breach the creepy rule increases. Once breached, customers might stay away from the offered service or product.

Back to the blind date. Showing interest in your date will be considered nice, but don’t push your luck by disclosing all the details of your little research. If you do, you might find yourself finishing your meal alone.