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Have you been duped by the Real Age Quiz?

If you’re one of the millions who have fallen for Real Age — or any one of the many data-trolling “apps” on Facebook and MySpace, then you absolutely must read this eye-opening piece in today’s New York Times.

Now, I come with a long and fruitful background in database marketing and I’ve actually consulted with Facebook apps companies. I know that these apps and quizzes are primarily designed to get personal information out of you and then sell it to the highest bidder (which is why I avoid them). These marketers, like me, want to squeeze as much personal information out of you, stuff it into databases, and use the information to sell you stuff.

However, Real Age has become a mechagodzilla success at gulling millions of users to part with highly personal and highly valuable information, information they probably don’t want stored in a database somewhere. Yet those millions have no idea that the whole purpose of the quiz is to sell their personal information (including highly sensitive health information) to pharmaceutical companies who got some drugs to sell.

Money quote:

RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results. It acts as a clearinghouse for drug companies, including Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.

RealAge sends the selected recipients a series of e-mail messages about a condition they might have, usually sponsored by a drug company that sells a medication for that condition.

Grim Reality 101: the only purpose of the Real Age Quiz — and most Facebook and MySpace apps — is to extract personal information about you so that marketers can sell you stuff. And they don’t want you to know it. And Real Age is the best of the best. What do you get for all that valuable info you give them? A “real age” and an advertising newsletter. Such a deal.

Real Age is a modern-day marketing leviathan, with over 27 million people having taken the test (150 questions) and over 9 million joining the site. It has achieved a database marketing holy grail: extracting extremely personal, highly sensitive, high quality information from millions of people, information literally worth millions (Hearst Magazine, which bought the company in 2007, thinks that database of information is worth $70 million, which is what they paid for the company.)

Here’s my take on Real Age (and Facebook Apps and all other surreptitious means marketers use to get personal information, like asking for our ZIP code at checkout): I don’t like duping people into giving personal information. Your personal information is not only property in a sense, it is also highly valuable. While I’m a fanatical practitioner of database marketing, I believe strongly that whenever people surrender personal information — whether it’s a Real Age survey, a shopper’s club card, or just simply a question at checkout — they should be fully informed about the true use of that information (i.e., to sell you stuff and, in many cases, to sell to other people to sell you stuff).

As a marketing professional, I totally lack in morals, but even I don’t like tricks like Real Age, which lies by omission.

If you’re not familiar with database marketing, it works by gathering information about customers and prospective customers. Some of that data is what I call “unstamped.” It’s data that’s not attached to a face and a name, such as customer satisfaction survey data. The really valuable data is what I call “stamped” data (I made up these names because there’s no satisfactory moniker in the database marketing world). Stamped data has specifics attached. It matches information to individual people with real names, real addresses, real ages, real everything. Stamped data allows marketers to microtarget marketing campaigns.

What database marketing means is this: here, in the real world, you’re walking and talking and taking out the trash. The “real” you, which is the you that buys drugs, is hooked on Famous Amos, wastes time on Facebook apps, and supports sustainable energy, is the innocent target of every hungry marketer.

But there’s also a shadow you, a digital avatar, ghosting around in a million databases. Every time you swipe your grocery club card, a little more information gets added to the digital you. Every time you subscribe to a magazine, more info gets added to your digital ghost. Every time you use your credit card. Browse around in Amazon. Fill out an online survey. Each time this happens — and it probably happens several times a day — your data warehoused digital avatar becomes a little more defined, a little more filled-in, a little more like the “real” you.

And the more this data warehoused you corresponds to the real you, the more valuable it becomes. Why? Because it tells marketers what they need to do to get you to part with your hard-earned cash.

Database marketers use the various data warehoused incarnations of your digital you to target the real you and get you to buy their crap.

I have no problem with that and neither should you. Because you have a digital avatar, your local grocery store mysteriously but generously hands you coupons to stuff you actually buy. Amazon and Borders sends you ads for books you’re actually interested in. And drug companies send you information about drugs you may actually need (who needs Viagra?)

But one of the problems with the digital you is that the real you isn’t too keen on having highly personal information being gathered, collated, and number-crunched. If the real you had any idea how much personal information is out there for anyoe with a wallet and the know-how to access, you’d be a bit miffed. If the real you knew that political campaigns are out there mining that data in order to say exactly the right thing to you personally to get you to vote, you’d be a bit shocked. If you actually knew that every time you swipe your grocery card, there’s a database out there recording every purchase — including that box of petite-sized condoms — you probably wouldn’t be so eager for the club savings you get.

This problem is especially acute when people are asked to fill in surveys and attach their name, address, and other individually stamped information to them. Especially when the surveys ask highly personal information, like sex life or health information. People quickly say “no, thanks,” or they lie (I always lie on surveys unless they’re customer satisfaction surveys). And database marketing people aren’t all that good at sorting out the lies.

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory has a metric it calls the “K” scale. We outside the psychometrics universe would call it the “bullshit” scale. It’s a measure of how much the test-taker is “lying” on the test to make him or her look good. Doctors score REALLY high on the K scale. Surgeons and politicians literally break the K scale, like those thermometers in Warner Brothers cartoons.

But database marketers don’t really do K or any other kind of “lying” scales. I once had a high-level meeting with the President of Home Entertainment at Warner Brothers trying to talk him into a database marketing initiative, back when database marketing was still a novelty. When I discussed surveys, he asked me, “Do you think surveys are dependable?” “I do,” I said. “I don’t,” he replied brusquely. “I think 50% or more of survey responses are untruthful.”

Where’d he get that number? From real data? Or did he pull it out of his backside? I believe then as I believe now that this 50% was a backside-sourced number, but what was the actual number? How dependable are surveys?

When I asked Arthur Hughes, the swami of database marketing in its early days whom I spent many fruitful days working alongside, about the truth level of database marketing surveys, he assured me there was no problem. I knew that wasn’t true because I personally have never made a truthful comment on a survey in my life (I call myself an information anarchist).

But Real Age has solved this dependability problem big time. Not only does the quiz ask for extremely highly sensitive information, people have an unwitting tendency to be both truthful and accurate. As a result, the database of consumer information that Real Age has built has generated some whopping big revenues for the pharmaceutical companies (I’ve actually encountered some of these numbers). It also allows the pharmaceutical companies to ignore federal and state laws that govern how they market their products. It’s Real Age that does the actual database marketing, not the pharmaceuticals (there isn’t a pharmaceutical company doing business in the States that would want any part of this database because then they’d be hamstrung by federal regulations).

Meanwhile, nobody who’s taken the quiz is aware that the only purpose of the quiz is to gather extremely sensitive information and attach it to their name. And then put a ribbon and a bow on that package and sell it to pharmaceutical companies. In fact, that’s the reason most Facebook and MySpace apps exist — to extract actionable and sellable intelligence about specific individuals.

None of that I have a problem with. But people should be allowed the opportunity to know that this is what the game is about before parting with their personal information. For instance, every time some checkout proletariat abruptly asks me for my ZIP code (or phone number), I ask, “Is that required information?” They say, “No.” I reply, “Then why did you ask me as if it were required information? Shouldn’t you be letting me know that I have the option of refusing?” To which they reply, “Asshole.”

Okay, so maybe I’m not all that amoral of a marketer, but I play one on TV.

To my mind, however, the whole database marketing world mirrors the exotic financial instruments world. These cowboys are out there writing their own rules books oblivious of larger responsibilities or risks (show me a book on database marketing ethics and I’ll take it all back).

Just like the exotic financial products world, there’s a crash coming. You heard it here first, fellow ninjas. There’s a big crash coming in the database marketing world, which, like derivatives trading, is a hugely unregulated world playing by no rules. Something will happen to put database marketing on everyone’s radar and people will find out just how much of their personal information has been meticulously recorded, distributed, and used. My prediction is that the trigger will involve marketing to children, but there hangs a tale for another day (oh, the stories I could tell you about the information marketers gather on children and how they use it, the stories I could tell).

A simple start to getting database marketing back in line with the values of society is to stop duping people out of their information. People — who are customers, after all — deserve the right to knowledgably refuse parting with their information. And, yeah, that includes putting a stop to demanding people’s ZIP codes, area codes, or telephone numbers at checkout counters.

As a very wise and very accomplished salesman named Jonathon once told me, “The key to being great at sales is to never lie. Your word is your most valuable possession.”

As a longtime database marketer, I say (and I’ve said it for years) that it’s time for the database marketing world to stop the scamming.

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2 Responses to “Have you been duped by the Real Age Quiz?”

  1. Kaltume says:

    Am so totally and completely horrified!

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