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Time, Place, and Manner

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Sex for Kash Postulate

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Yes, we're talking about Kashmir Hill, and we're talking about sex. Kash's sex to be specific, but don't get too excited, it's not like that. We mean sex in the "M/F" check the box kind of way.

Check the box?

That's what she said.


Before getting down to just what our theory is, we want to revisit two articles Kash wrote in her Forbes column The Not So Private Parts. First, Kash explains why Google thinks you're a man even if you've told it you're female:

I’ve long complained that Google is convinced that I’m an older gentleman. Every time I visit Google’s Ad Preferences Manager, it tells me my gender is male and that I’m well over the hill. (Inaccurate on both counts, I swear!) Given Google’s big privacy policy change this week, many others have been checking out what Google knows about them, including Casey Johnson of Ars Technica and Torie Bosch of Slate. An informal survey at the Slate offices found that Google’s ad preference manager thought many of the ladies were men and that many of the young men were senior citizens. How does it do for you?

If Google knows so much about us, why does it get this wrong?

Google’s guesses about your ad preferences are not based on your Google Account activity (i.e., your Google searches, the contents of your Gmail, the YouTube videos you’ve uploaded, etc.), but instead on your Web browsing.

You've told Google in your account settings that you're female, but it's still sending you targeted ads aimed at men. Why? Because it looks at what websites you go to, who tends to go to those websites, and then makes a guess about your sex based on that, rather than on using the personal information you told them.

In the second article, Kash discusses how Target found out that a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents knew. If you start buying lotion and vitamins Target looks at the buying trends of other people, makes an educated guess, and starts sending you coupons for diapers. That really freaks people out though, because, you know, it's pretty freaky.

Target decided to combat the unsettling nature of its coupon mailings be intentionally getting things wrong:

Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.

(Andrew Pole, Target statistician, quote originally from New York Times.)


If you have half a brain, and it's functioning, you can probably figure out what our theory is. Google has long since had a reputation for being creepy in its level of data collection and analysis. You don't get Extenz ads by chance, it's because you visit BMW and MMA sites too often. When it's too nail-on-the-head you're creeped out and the ads stop being effective.

Why couldn't Google have reached the same solution Target did? Allay fears of your creepiness by getting something obviously wrong. How much of a threat to your privacy could Google be if they get very basic information, information that you've actually explicitly told them, if they get that stuff wrong?

Oh Google, you're not evil, you're just silly!


In the realm of internet trolling there has developed Poe's Law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.

Just look at the number of people who think Bill O'Reilly isn't an act, a far more subtle and nuanced version of Stephen Colbert. In the same spirit, we get the Sex for Kash Postulate:

Once a marketing campaign reaches a threshold level of sophistication, it is impossible to distinguish between genuine mistakes in data collection and analysis from intentional mistakes designed to put the audience at ease.

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