Privacy as Social Mechanism for Preserving Identity Inconsistency

How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

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How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

Target is the third-largest retail chain in the US. Like other chains, Target specializes in consumer market segmentation, and its statistics department collects information about its customers with the aim of increasing its profits. Target’s statisticians have thus transformed the computerized databank of customer purchases into strategic information. But what happens when Target’s research department identifies interests that are in the private domain?

A New York Times article (February 9, 2012) described how in the course of data analysis conducted by Target’s experts in the context of their customer’s shopping habits, a pattern emerged of increased purchases of unscented lotion coupled with increased purchases of supplements like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. They came to the conclusion that there was a high probability that these customers were pregnant women in their first trimester. After further analysis, Target’s analysts identified twenty-five products the purchase of which indicates a reasonable possibility of pregnancy. They were able to estimate the woman’s due date so that Target could mail coupons timed to very specific stages of the woman’s pregnancy and after giving birth.

One day a man walked into a Target store and demanded to see the manager. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said, showing him advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture, and pictures of smiling infants. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” The manager apologized, explaining it as a possible error in Target’s consumer market segmentation. He called the customer’s home a few days later to apologize again. Abashed, the father replied, “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. Jenny’s due in August…”

Which boundary did Target breach in Jenny’s case? Society is built on shared representations of beliefs and modes of action that are accepted as the norm. Although we do not know the full details, we can assume which representations clashed in Jenny’s case. According to agreed social representations, a mother’s role is first and foremost to take care of her baby, and consequently to stay at home with him for a certain period of time. Another shared representation views sixteen-year-old girls as high school students whose sole occupation is studying. Before her pregnancy, the girl held two social identities with different social representations: her behavior in the family setting was consistent with that of a high school student, and in her social circle with that of a free and liberated young woman. Each identity group has different representations: the girl’s friends have no interest in how she helps her younger siblings, and her parents have no interest in her conversations with her girlfriends about the handsome young teacher who’s just started teaching in her school. However, the representations of a high school student and of a liberated young woman are contradictory in their attitude toward the girl’s sexuality. In the family circle her sexuality is supposed to be restrained, whereas in her social circle active sexuality is part of the perception of a liberated young woman. It was the privacy mechanism that enabled the girl’s identities, beliefs, and their action representations to coexist in her. The contradiction between the social representations associated with teenage sexuality prevailing among adults and young people, and the boundaries of privacy employed to resolve this contradiction are described by Schalet (2011) in her book about parents and adolescents. In an interview one American girl, Kimberley, tells the researcher that she never received any sex education at home. She has a boyfriend and they have sex, but she believes it would be easier for her parents not to know, because they see her as a ‘little princess’. In her opinion, her parents adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

It may be assumed that Jenny refrained from telling anyone about her pregnancy for similar reasons, and that in both cases pressure was exerted in both social circles (family and peers) for conformity of the social representation: if the girl displays expressions of sexual freedom – such as skimpy dress – in her home, her parents might place restrictions on her, and she will no longer be their ‘little princess’. And if she behaves conservatively in her social circle, she is liable to be perceived outside the group as being old-fashioned and ‘nerdy’. In both identity groups this pressure is not accidental. It stems from the need of the other group members to affirm their own identity, and the need of all the partners in the relationship to preserve the group’s shared representations. It is the boundaries of privacy that prevent the clash between the social representations of each identity.

In the Target case, when does the cover of privacy, which protected the girl and allowed her to choose the right time to disclose her pregnancy, expire? The argument is whether a wanted teenage pregnancy belongs to polemical representations – representations created in times of dispute or struggle between groups in society over the right way to act (Ben-Asher, 2003). Had Target mailed the coupons only after the baby was born, it may be assumed that the information would have been known to the girl’s surroundings, and would have become an accepted, hegemonic representation of new information grounded in previous knowledge. People around her would have said, “Jenny never stood a chance of graduating high school anyway”, or alternatively, “Jenny’s family is very supportive, and in spite of the new baby Jenny’ll graduate high school and go even further”.

The price the girl had to pay for appropriation of her privacy belongs to the prices people pay when the boundaries of their privacy are breached incidentally, and not out of malicious intent to break down the walls and invade the privacy of the other. In this case it was ostensibly done for the benefit of the customer, or as a ‘neutral’ business interest.

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