SXSW: Hey Beyond Behavioral, Can We Use DNA In Social Marketing?

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Rohn Jay Miller Director of Digital Strategy, Hanley Wood Marketing

Posted on March 11th 2012

SXSW: Hey Beyond Behavioral, Can We Use DNA In Social Marketing?

A SXSW presentation took a dramatic look at a new kind of marketing that reaches far beyond behavioral understandings about people---looking at our personal DNA genome, and marketing to us as a result of this information that is literally in our bones. 

“Influence, It’s In Your Genes," presented by Paul Saarinen, of the agency Yamamoto in Minneapolis and Dr. Scott Fahrenkrug of the University of Minnesota, a genetic scientist.

The fight over personal privacy and sharing social information is already upon us.   There was a firestorm of controversy from an article in the New York Times that exposed market research practices at Target Corporation that involved some creepy data crunching about personal information of consumers.

Paul Saarinen, left and  Dr. Scott Fahrenkrug at SXSW (courtesy @chrispollard)

The New York Times story began with the tale of an angry father confronting a store manager at the local Target.  He was angry because his teen age daughter had been receiving discount coupons from Target for products related to pregnancy and babies.   The manager was baffled, but promised to find out what he could.

The manager called the father back a week later to check in and again apologize.  The father sheepishly admitted that he had talked with his daughter and she admitted that she was in fact pregnant.

So how did Target know the teen ager was pregnant? 

It turns out that Target has spent a great deal of time and effort to accumulate massive amounts of person and social data to crunch and then predict when women are pregnant. 

Knowing if a woman is pregnant would be an enormous advantage for consumer package goods companies.  If they can flood the woman with coupons and specials when she’s pregnant she will be several times more likely to return to Target in the years following to buy diapers, cribs, and baby clothes.   

That’s much more effective than competing with all the other marketers who flood women with promotions after the birth is announced in the newspaper. 

Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook can now determine within a 33% accuracy when you’re going to break up with the person you’re dating.  Credit scoring firms like Equifax can predict with 98% accuracy if and when you’re going to get divorced.  Foresquare wants to study your patterns of movement to predict where you’re going to go next. 

So who’s data is this?  If its information about you how do you control how it’s used by corporations?

Now think about your own DNA.   If a company could access your DNA and could find out you like bitter tastes or are lactose intolerant they could market very specifically to your tastes.  Sequencing a person DNA used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  But the cost is dropping dramatically.  Today it costs $1,000 to sequence your DNA, which provides about a million points of data about your body.

“The cost is dropping so fast it’s blowing Moore’s Law” out of the water, said Fahrenkrug.  “Soon it will cost $10, and pretty soon it will be almost free.”  Saarinen and Fahrenkrug make the point that the issue of exploiting DNA for marketing and insurance purposes is almost here—it’s just a matter of time.

And it turns out that as a matter of law you don’t own the DNA information that can be discovered by you.  Tissue samples have been taken from human beings after they’ve died for research purposes.   A Supreme Court decision about a California case held that once a body has been turned over for disposal it’s legal for tissue samples to be taken by the hospital handling the body.  And in turn they may partner with Pharmaceutical or other healthcare companies and even sell samples to those companies. 

Will companies actually get into the DNA analysis business? “The marketplace is getting close to making this a reality,” says Fahrenkrug.    “You’re leaving DNA everywhere, since you shed one million cells every day.   There’s no way you can prevent leaving cells that contain your DNA all over the place.”

See the exponential privacy issues?  What if a grocery store chain swept the shelves of stores to find out the DNA information about who’s buying what products? 

What are the answers to protecting our genetic privacy from marketers and corporations?  Passing privacy laws has proved to be a difficult challenge.  The HIPPA law (Health Information Privacy Protection Act) refers to specific medical records that cannot be shared with the public.  But the back door of the hospital taking tissue samples to use for research purposes persists.

Perhaps it may be possible for an individual person to copyright their Genome information.  Already there are test kits that allow individuals to test for genetic markers that might predict if they will develop a certain type of cancer, and even predict their likely life spans. 

Fahrenkrug  and Saarinen have a start-up called Miinome which is exploring the idea of building an associations of people who would gather their DNA information together.  Miinome is an opt-in only company, almost like a co-op, which would take your DNA information and sell it to corporations for use, but in return for money, or a piece of the action if a blockbuster drug is developed. 

While Saarinen and Fahrenkrug are focused on the future role of DNA in marketing, already the amassing of purchase, location and other behavioral data by large corporations like Target is being exploited for marketing and product purposes. 

While healthcare and insurance companies cannot discriminate legally against people because of information they gather about you, it’s perfectly legal to incentivize you and market to you. 

So as healthcare costs climb and threaten the economy, don’t be surprised if you are flooded with incentives from the marketing arms of healthcare and insurance companies if they can detect your behavior or genetic likelihood of developing a disease. 

And probably when you’re pregnant.  Hey, maybe even before you know you’re pregnant.   

rohnjaymiller

Rohn Jay Miller

Director of Digital Strategy, Hanley Wood Marketing

I'm Director of Digital Strategy for Hanley Wood Marketing in Minneapolis.  We've been in the content strategy and branded content business since 1984.  We deliver across content strategy and branded content. I speak in public, often by invitation. I can be reached at rohnjay@rohnjaymiller.com

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