if ( gender == "female" && married == True && age >=30 ) { hasChildren = True; }

by @edent | # # # # # | 17 comments | Read ~2,711 times.

Marketing really is crap. Recently, SE Railways sent this piece of email drivel to my wife:
Email promting parents to get their kids travel savvy.

We don't have any kids, thankfully - and are not having any in the future. My wife was literally recovering from a sterilisation procedure when the email arrived. So it seemed a bit weird that they'd send her a message like that.

My wife has never booked a child's fare. She's done nothing to indicate to them that she has spawned. They know that she's married and female, because she set her title to "Mrs". They got her date of birth from the ID checks they carried out - we think.

As far as we can tell, they've unilaterally decided that all married women of a certain age must have kids. Or, perhaps, they just lazily sent the message to all women?

So, she spoke to them, to ask why this specific piece of guff had been sent to her. All they'd say was the rather nebulous statement that the emails was a "targeted email sent to a number of passengers [...] When passengers use our services we're able to use this data to help us target communications effectively."

Not really answering the question. But they decided to bung us £20 of M&S vouchers for the "upset".

Even the most modest of interactions with a company will be data-mined for trivial details in the vague hope of getting you to spend more money.

Here are a few tips if you want to avoid getting microtargetted like this:

  • Consider using a gender neutral title like Mx - or earn yourself a doctorate.
  • Use an initial rather than a first name. Names can be used to determine likely age.
  • Don't answer any demographic questions which aren't necessary to the provision of the service, or have a legal/regulatory basis.
  • You generally can't unsubscribe from service emails, but you can close your account once you've finished your transaction. Digital hygiene is essential!

Of course, if you complain about a mistargeted email, that's another data-point they have about you!

17 thoughts on “if ( gender == "female" && married == True && age >=30 ) { hasChildren = True; }

  1. Oh nooo that is dreadful.
    My (differently offensive) experience of targeting gone wrong is when a clothes company sent me a "we've got sale clothes in your size" mail, as I'd once bought wellies from them. My feet might be a size 8, but the rest of me certainly isn't 😬


  2. Neil Brown says:

    Now this would make for an interesting subject access request (especially since the response to @summerbeth 's initial enquiry seems a bit lacklustre).

    And also a request for rectification on the basis that the email asserts that she has children.

    #GDPR

  3. And getting a doctorate is fine - but not sure you have met my alter-ego Stan. Of course, Siân must be a typo and Stan is most definitely very male.


    1. Lau Gainpaulsingh says:

      Siân,

      Even with my UK keyboard, I personally would make the extra effort to get the spelling exactly correct and not type simply "Sian" (I have no doubt this has happened to you many times).

      Even with my name, people still often get it wrong, and it should be quite simple.

  4. Data use for businesses only has to be profitable and fines are a price.


  5. Stamanfar says:

    So much wrong with this, including assuming women are the only ones who have (or care about) their kids is another interesting one 🤦🏼‍♀️


  6. Today in ‘sexist bullshit via algorithm’

  7. Mike says:

    I wonder if they sent that utterly needless email to any men, or if they think that getting a child "travel savvy" is the sole responsibility of a child's mother. (All children have a mother. All children have a mother who is alive. All children have a mother who lives with them. All children have a mother who ensures they get to and from school while the father is at work at the business office with his briefcase, umbrella and bowler hat.)

  8. I try and not swear, but FFS sometimes.

  9. Robert says:

    You are actually complaining about advertising not being specifically targeted to your situation, when there is a worldwide diacussion on how wrong using your personal information to advertise is. It’s either advertising companies knowing too much about you or not enough to guess if you have children - there is no middle ground

    1. @edent says:

      Robert, I think you've misunderstood the complaint here. If this was sent out to everyone, it would be non-targetted. I didn't get the mail - only my wife did. So it is targeted advertising - but their "algorithm" has made an incorrect inference. In this case, it is mildly annoying. But mistargeting can have more serious consequences.

      1. Robert Janeczek says:

        But clearly if you'd get the mail the inference would have a statistically higher chance of being incorrect and they are optimizing to minimize wrong inferences? For me checking if a child's fare has been bought in the past to target mailing is more problematic than wrong assumption on sender's behalf.
        I don't mean to offend anybody, but however poor the assumption in the subject is, it likely is statistically significant enough to target mailing. I'm quite certain it is possible to figure out based on the data about your online actions that you and your wife would feel offended by the assumption you have kids and you should not get these kinds of emails, but are you sure you prefer companies to dig that deep into your life in order to avoid that?

        1. @edent says:

          No, we'd prefer them not to send any marketing messages whatsoever. If they absolutely have to - they should use verifiable information rather than inferred information.

          Saying "our records show you regularly travel to this station - it is closed next week" is a different class than "our records show you regularly travel to this station - people who travel there are statistically likely to enjoy chocolate, have a Flake!"

          The other thing to consider is what are the risks of a false negative?

          1. Robert Janeczek says:

            I'd say some people could still be offended by the assumption that they still live in the shithole of town they lived in 12 months ago. I struggle to view the message as marketing - it might be a useless reminder to talk with your kids about cleaning their hands, but in essence it's a reminder that not all is back to normal yet. They are not trying to sell you diapers or a Flake. It's a newsletter with probably several million subscribers. It will not be perfectly matched to your needs. Accepting statistical inference or accepting detailed targeting, or unsubscribing - these are your options for company newsletters. Companies have to choose one of the first two and always will see people from the other group unsatisfied. Hell, I'm actually slightly irritated by them not making the choice and sending me generic emails about products I already own.

        2. Mike says:

          Perhaps companies should not send these kinds of emails at all given they appear to have no real value to any recipient.

  10. Carrie says:

    This is horrendous. Not only for people who have decided not to have children but also must be very upsetting for those who desperately want to be parents but who are infertile or have had miscarriages. It makes me very angry.

  11. Michcio says:

    @Edent Thankfully my bank here in Poland doesn't do microtargeting. I literally have a youth account with them cause I'm 22, but it doesn't stop them from pushing me notifications suggesting I open child accounts for my supposed children.

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