At What Point Does Micro-Targeting Become Unethical?

We recently received an official-looking letter in the mail.  At least, they wanted it to look official, because it’s festooned with little flourishes like “Request Immediate Action” and “2nd Attempt,” and a warning listing the criminal penalties for interfering with delivery of this letter.  But what gave it away were the words “Honda Accord.”  The Honda is a car we bought from our daughter-in-law, when she traded up.  It’s a 2004, and we registered the car in Nevada, where we live, after bringing it down from Washington.  Our other car is my beloved 2001 Nissan Xterra, which I will likely drive until the wheels fall off.  Both of these facts are available via the Nevada auto registration database and probably other sources.  And so the data miners have determined that we are likely candidates for an over-priced “extension” of our factory warranty.

I stress “over-priced” because the coverage ends at 100,000 miles (I’ll let you guess how many miles are on the odometer of a nearly nine year old car), doesn’t cover maintenance items or normal wear and tear, and has more exceptions than I want to read through.  In addition, the Accord gets 4.5 out of 5 “circles” for overall dependability, according to J. D. Power.  But because we drive older cars, and we bought the Honda “used,” in a private sale, for less than the market price (again, available via the Department of Motor Vehicles), the data miners figure we can’t afford anything better.  From this, they project that we’d be susceptible to “pressure” marketing, and less than critical in our thinking.  Thus, the envelope with all the messages, designed to make the addressee believe she’s dealing with some legal authority, rather a marketing campaign with below-average ethics.

We just concluded our elections here in the United States, and from what I’ve been reading, many of the campaigns were driven by micro-targeting.  Consultants used data from multiple sources, cross-linked and weighted based on various polls, focus groups, and other research, to send very specific messages to individual voters.  You read that right – not to me, as a member of some specific group, but to me as the confluence of a number of interests.  My brothers and sister got completely different appeals, and so did my neighbors.  From my junk mail to the TV and radio ads, to the pop-ups on the web while I surfed, the campaigns tracked me and sent me messages.  And the ones who were good at it mostly won.

Is this a good development?  Well, it’s certainly an interesting development.  The Supreme Court decision in Citizen’s United opened the door for literally unlimited spending by outside groups, and yet the ones who spent the most money seem to have wasted it.  Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the conservative political action committees run by Karl Rove, known as “Bush’s Brain,” spent $300 million in support of Mitt Romney and an even dozen Republican Senate candidates, only one of whom actually won.  Fellow Nevadan and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is alleged to have contributed between $60 and $100 million to these “attack” campaigns, but because the opposition mastered micro-targeting and message control, they won.  And depending on who you supported, that might be either outrageous or wonderful.

So, as practicing IT project managers, we need to think about this trend of using “big data” analysis for marketing and what it means to us, from an ethical standpoint.  Does that letter from the warranty extension people cross the line?  I think it does.  What about the Obama campaign’s micro-targeting of voters?  Not yet, but the 2014 elections loom large.  And when we see that our work is going to be used for less than ethical purposes, what is our responsibility?  To alert the sponsor?  Our employers?  Our customers?  The general public?  Should we refuse to work on a project we feel to be unethical, or plainly not in the public’s interest?  In short: at what point should we take sides?

I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments.


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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.