David Pike prefers hiking holidays over seaside lounging, and personalized ads over random promotions. "Show me the trails of Madeira," says the St. John's mathematics professor, describing the sort of marketing campaign he finds most appealing, "not the sandy beaches of Jamaica."
One day in the not-too-distant future, marketers might turn to an unexpected source for clues to Prof. Pike's vacation preferences: his chromosomes.
In the ever-growing field of personal-data mining, marketing firms already latch on to details far beyond the sphere of names and postal codes to gain insights into consumers' personal tastes. And DNA may well be the next frontier: genetic information gleaned from burgeoning databases. Prof. Pike and thousands of others, for instance, have contributed their DNA for ancestry or health tests. And Canadian volunteers are now signing up for the newly launched Personal Genome Project, which is to house an online open storehouse of genetic codes and personal traits.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: Two years ago, just a decade after the first human genome was mapped, Visa Inc., one of the world's largest credit-card companies, tried to secure a patent that would allow it to search, among other things, DNA databanks for marketing purposes. As the cost to sequence DNA drops, and online databases grow, the commercial interests in consumers' genetic profiles is likely to grow along with it. In the academic world, researchers are already mining human DNA for links between genes and consumer preferences.
But adding DNA to the marketing mix is bound to be a tough sell. Visa's patent application prompted a flurry of privacy-breach concerns from mainstream media and consumer watchdogs, and the company has since removed any mention of DNA from its patent bid.
Yet there's little doubt that human genomes could be a marketer's dream: a six-billion-unit code brimming with nothing but personal data, pointing out people at risk of obesity, or cancers and high cholesterol, or even those with dead-straight hair, making the carriers of these gene variants prime targets to receive tailored ads for, say, discount gym memberships, weight-loss programs, antioxidants, cholesterol-lowering drugs or even home perms.
And while privacy advocates fret over marketers delving into people's DNA, others don't see genetic information as being much different than the plethora of other details already collected about consumers – the online searches they conduct, the personal experiences they post, where and when they shop, or what they buy.
"Conceptually, I don't see a difference between DNA and the amount of information that's already out there about everything that people do," said Adam Froman, CEO of Delvinia, a Toronto-based digital-strategy firm. "It's just another data point."
But, Mr. Froman added, he doubts consumers feel the same way. A survey conducted by the research panel he founded, called AskingCanadians, showed that Canadians have significant reservations about the use of genetic information for marketing purposes. "I think the hurdle around the perception of breaching privacy is going to be a hard one for the consumer to swallow," he said. "I think we're two generations away from that changing."
Ultimately, though, genetic information holds intriguing potential, he said, especially in terms of "predictive analytics – being able to find out what people want or need before they know they want or need it."
Marketers aren't the only ones considering such issues. The Journal of Consumer Research published a Stanford University-led study last year that explored how genes affect consumer choice. Researchers analyzed the consumer preferences of identical twins, who share the same DNA, and fraternal twins, who do not.
They concluded that a wide range of consumer choices are influenced by genetic factors. Identical twins were more likely to make the same judgments and decisions regarding their preferences for sure gains over gambles – for choosing practical products, like batteries, over indulgent ones, like chocolate. The study also found that "likings for specific products seemed to be genetically related: chocolate, mustard, hybrid cars, science-fiction movies and jazz." The authors were careful to note that there are no genes tied to such specific products, only that there appears to be a genetic predisposition for these preferences.
Whatever the links between chromosomes and consumerism, the trend to exploit them is worrisome to many. When Marcy Darnovsky first heard about Visa's patent application, she gasped. Ms. Darnovsky, the associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society at Berkeley, Calif., a non-profit information group that advocates for responsible uses of genetic technologies, says that DNA databases, outside of those used by police and in most health-research projects, are not well protected by law.
Market researchers, she said, could theoretically gain access to the genetic information of people who have mailed away their DNA for direct-to-consumer health tests, for instance. As it stands, companies tend to ask – in fine print – for people to explicitly opt out of having DNA shared with other research entities. Instead, she said, they should be asked to opt in.
"Genetic information really is different than other behavioural data [used for marketing purposes]" she argued. "I think we have to treat genetic data differently. … It says more about you, your health risks and your family members. There needs to be protection from marketers having access to it."
As for Prof. Pike, he believes marketers should have an individual's explicit consent to use their DNA to customize ads. "If the choice is between random ads … and targeted ads that might actually have some appeal, then I'd probably prefer to be exposed to the latter." He's skeptical that marketers will ever be able to use his genetic profile to discern his taste in vacations, but he's certain of one thing: "Marketers are expert at data mining, and if there is data that can be mined then I'm confident that they'll try to do so."