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Divorce Meets Big Data

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The New York Times recently published an expose on Target's initiative to identify the life cycle events of their customers by mining data from their purchasing patterns. The thinking is that if you can correctly identify when a customer is pregnant, for example, you can more acutely target your advertising efforts to that customer to include things like diapers, sanitary wipes, and a myriad of other goods that she is soon to need. More important, by catching the consumer at the intersection of a big life change, like having a child, there is an opportunity to change customer shopping habits and brand loyalty forever.

Among the life cycle events in Target's program are child birth, marriage, and divorce. According to the article, when people get divorced there is a heightened chance that they will start buying different brands of beer. This factoid raises many questions, both practical and philosophical. On the practical level, it calls us to wonder what other consumption patterns might change after a divorce? Or perhaps more interesting to retailers, what consumption patterns might change in the lead-up to a divorce? On the philosophical level, it begs us to ask who has access to this data, who should have access to this data, what impact might it have in divorce trials, and the potential ethical issues that arise from targeting advertisements to divorcees.

How Does Consumption Change After Divorce?

As it turns out, there is a ton of research about changes in consumption patterns both immediately before and after divorce. According to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, sudden purchases of furniture, linens, low-calorie foods, and frozen meals are a telltale sign that a divorce has recently occurred. The logic is quite clear: When one vacates the marital home, he or she has to find a new home, furnish it, and usually buy a whole new suite of bed sheets, towels, etc. When one has to re-enter the dating market, one becomes concerned about body image in the mind of the opposite sex, and starts paying more attention to diet. And, as we all know, it's vexing to cook a real meal for one, so recent divorcees tend to rely more heavily on prepared meals. Perhaps more interesting, the study suggests that elevated purchases of alcohol are likely an indicator that a divorce is about to occur.

Who Has Access to Your Data?

Based on the NYT article, you might get the impression that expecting mothers and recent divorcees are being unfairly singled out, but that is hardly the case. Targeted advertising has grown into an enormous industry, and Big Data is the subsidiary industry that makes it all possible. In a post-Google world, this is simply the norm. So the question is, should divorce be exempted from the norm? Is targeting an alcohol advertisement to a recent divorcee somehow different than targeting a shoe advertisement to someone who likes basketball? My gut instinct says that it is, and I expect many readers would agree with me. First of all, there is a societal expectation that the divorce process is sensitive and deserving of privacy. Moreover, it seems unconscionable for a retailer to send alcohol advertisements to someone who is known to be at a point in their life when they have a heightened susceptibility to alcohol abuse.

Perhaps if the advertisements were limited to furniture and linens, it would seem less predatory. But the reality is that advertising is essentially a no holds barred industry. There is no regulator to tell retailers what data they can and cannot collect, or how they can deploy that data to target their advertising campaigns. The Obama administration is currently pressing the industry to formulate a "privacy bill of rights," but even that would be voluntary and self-enforced. So for the time being, if retailers are mining your purchasing patterns for insight into your life, there is no limit to what they can do with that information.

That's the bad news. The good news is there are only a handful of companies in the world that have enough data about your purchasing patterns to draw any real insight from it, and they guard that data rather zealously. Costco has no incentive to share your data with Walmart, even if Walmart is willing to pay, because that data could be the key to winning your long-term loyalty. So you do have some level of control over how far your data spreads. Vote with your dollars, and only patronize the merchants that you trust to be responsible stewards of your data.

How Might This Data Impact Divorce Proceedings?

Once you enter the courtroom, however, that's a whole different story. Your former spouse could potentially subpoena your favorite retailers for access to information about your purchases, and if the court grants the discovery order, the retailers will be required to produce the data. Of course, if your former spouse needs to analyze your consumption patterns in order to learn that you're getting a divorce, then something is terribly wrong.

All jokes aside, however, there is a real concern here. Your consumption patterns may become relevant to custody proceedings, alimony, child support, and division of marital assets. For example, if Target discloses to the court that you purchase a handle of Malibu every week, your former spouse could use this evidence to imply that you have an alcohol problem and are unfit for sole or joint custody. Or if Zara reveals that you regularly drop more than $1,000 per visit on apparel, the jury may seriously question your need for alimony.

The question to ask yourself is whether there is any aspect of your lifestyle or consumption habits that could potentially be damaging if disclosed in front of a jury. The other question to ask yourself is whether this is a healthy way for people to live. Should we have to live in fear of our retailers? Should there be any space of life that deserves genuine privacy? And, as divorcees, what can we do to protect ourselves from the prying eyes of Big Data?