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Consumers might say they know that streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, gather lots of data about their preferences and uses. But do they really want to know, at a deeper level? Recent consumer-facing marketing campaigns leverage data that these services conventionally have used to appeal to advertisers on their sites. The shift in focus also has prompted some reactions that suggest some viewers and listeners would prefer to pretend not to know.

The campaigns are funny and clever, citing trends and blips in data that indicate who is watching or listening to what, when, and where. For example, Netflix asked on Twitter, “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: who hurt you?” Spotify similarly asked, “Dear person who played ‘Sorry’ 42 times on Valentine’s Day, what did you do?” The jokes are funny and broadly appealing, but the implications suggested therein also trouble some consumers.

In particular, they highlight the specificity with which these service providers track what customers do. That person playing “Sorry” might not appreciate being mocked, nor the sense that Spotify knows so much about his or her life. The idea that companies are engaging in surveillance of their customers, and then giving them a hard time for their choices, has led many customers to object on social media, often using references to the notion of Big Brother watching them.

But others insist that the joke is too good to be angry. Furthermore, both Netflix and Spotify continually insist that none of these data can identify the individual user. That is, simply because Spotify proclaims in an advertisement that it wants to be like the user who “streamed ‘Bad Liar’ 86 times the day Sean Spicer resigned” does not mean that the company, or any other firms that might purchase its data, can actually identify that person by name.

These types of assurances may ring a bit hollow, especially when the marketing campaigns offer specific details, such as asking which person living in a particular neighborhood in New York started playing holiday music in July. For Spotify, the solution has been to ask permission; if it cites a particular playlist created by a user in its marketing, it explicitly asks that user whether it may use the name of the playlist. When asked, not only did users agree happily, but Spotify also notes that none of them seemed particularly surprised, because the data collection and analytics it relies on are central to what makes its recommendation services so popular.

For Netflix, the main defense it has issued is to highlight again that it does not sell data about its customers to external advertisers, as platforms like Facebook and Google do. Therefore, even if it can identify what a specific individual viewer likes to watch, it uses that information solely to improve its service, not to sell them something else.

Whether they love them or hate them, the campaigns have sparked substantial discussion among consumers. On social media, they laugh at the punch lines or complain about the sense of surveillance. But in either case, they are certainly talking about the streaming services, which might have been the point in the first place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it ethical for companies to use customer data in advertisements in this way?
  2. Have these marketing campaigns been successful?

Source: Sapna Maheshwari, “Netflix and Spotify Ask: Can Data Mining Make for Cute Ads?” The New York Times, December 17, 2017