Dispatches from the forefront of marketing: what use for genetic data?
"If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a super power." *
That is what this article on using genetic data in marketing recently published in the Journal of Marketing made me think. The proliferation of genetic testing techniques opens unique opportunities and challenges for every one of us. As the techniques for measuring the human genome are becoming more and more effective, the number of DNA tests done to date is estimated to be around 30mln. This is still nothing compared to the global population, of course, but it we could expect that this number will increase as the tests become more accessible and widely known. Whether that will materialize depends on how far is peoples' aversion to sharing data and information with companies, and the desire for privacy and anonymity will go; and of course, on what do they get in exchange.
What is it that makes genetic data an excellent target for companies? There are at least five things we need to consider:
One needs only a small part of a person's genetic data to identify them.
Genetic data is also "informative about one’s relatives, including those who never consented to share any of their data" *
As the authors point out, our genetic data "is predictive, to some degree, of almost every human trait, ... and is immutable." *
Being a physiological metric, it bypasses people's rationalizations of their own behavior; supposedly, such metrics can be more objective in measuring our preferences and predispositions to behaviors.
It is easier to obtain compared to other physiological measures that received a lot of the attention in the recent years, such as brain activity.
All of this makes the usage of genetic data compelling to businesses. But what exactly can companies use it for? Truth being said, we are far from knowing all the possible applications, but we can already glimpse at two.
On one hand, genetic data can be used for "... segmentation and targeting, an approach that is expected to be particularly effective when marketing health, nutrition, and beauty products." If genetic data is predictive of our behavior, than it stands to reason that our product preferences and consumer behaviors are highly dependent on our genes. Imagine the accuracy and the granularity of profiling and targeting that can be achieved if you have access to genetic data.
On the other hand, genetic data can turn into an invaluable research tool. Again, if genetic data is predictive of our preferences and behaviors, then we no longer need to ask people what makes them do things - we can simply relate the actions to genes.
The downsides of using genetic data seem far clearer at this point - genetic marketing is likely to face huge ethical challenges.
On one hand, as we pointed out, genetic data doesn't give you information about one person only, but to his relatives as well.
On the other hand, the push for privacy and anonymity is likely to be even stronger when it concerns physiological data.
And then there is the purely ethical question about the morality of acting on things even people don't know themselves to sell them products and services.
How the business community will respond to these challenges remains to be seen but one thing is certain - we are bound to see heated debates around them.
Last, I believe there is a much broader question lurking beneath the surface of the use of genetic data in marketing, and it concerns neither the potential use cases, nor the ethical challenges. It is the centuries'-old nature-nurture dichotomy; is our behavior determined by our genes, or is it a function of the culture we grow up and live in, or is it a matter of completely free and unbound will. If nothing else, research utilizing genetic data can shed more light on this topic, thus advancing our understanding of who we are as a species.
Again, check it out the full article to read more and kick-start your thinking on the topic.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!
* I do not know who said that, so I can't express my sincere admiration - all I know is that Nir Eyal attributes it to one of his readers.