Come Over To The Dark Side, We Have Loyalty Cards.

How many loyalty cards, club cards, or rewards cards, do you have in your wallet? There are 4 in mine, and on average Australians carry 2 in theirs. But do theses cards sit idly by in your wallet when you’re not using them? Does scanning them at the register, simply add more points to your account? Or is there something deeper going on here?


Last week, TV show, ‘The Checkout’ on ABC did a segment in their episode, about loyalty cards and how they are used by huge corporations to create shopper profiles of us, tell things about our personal life depending on what we buy and through this, target us with specified advertising through mobile apps, emails, google advertisements and much more. They can also sell the deidentified version of this information, to third party companies (one’s you don’t have a loyalty card with, and may not even shop at), so that they can bombard you with specific advertising as well.


 The episode is here:  and the specific segment on this runs from about minute 18 onwards for about 5 minutes.

I strongly urge everyone to watch it.


But after seeing this, I got to thinking about it all, and did some extra research. Monash University published a paper 4 years ago, in 2009, about all of this and the information that companies are receiving and compiling against us, and whether or not people care more about their rewards than their privacy.

That’s the link to the paper. Give it a read, or a skim is equally as good, but there is some scary information there.


Last year, a man in the US came very close to filing a law suit against the company Target, for sending his daughter customer specific advertising for baby products. In an outrage, the man contacted the company and complained about how inappropriate it was etc etc. He then returned home, to discover that his 16 year old daughter was in fact, actually pregnant.

What the company had done, was conducted a series of studies into what pregnant women buy more of or are more likely to buy than other women, and at what point in the pregnancy they are buying which products. With the information that came from those studies, the company can incredibly accurately tell if a customer is pregnant, how far along she is, and when the baby is due. And all of this is done, simply so that they can target said women with pregnancy and baby related products in their advertisements.


So if Coles or Woolworths can tell if you’re pregnant, then what else do they know about you?

Already, Australia has seen a flybuys rewards system initated by Coles in recent years, that allows you to receive discounts on the things you buy regularly – and you don’t get to pick what they are, they tell you. Yes, they have records of every single grocery shop you’ve done using your rewards card, and they can tell you at what time of the year you’re more likely to buy certain products, what products you buy most frequently, how often you shop – they could probably tell you when there’s a birthday in the family based on when you buy cream to have with cakes.


“Jane is 53 years old and lives with her cat in a northern suburb of Melbourne. She works full time on the other side of town, so she prefers to drive rather than catch public transport.

On the weekend Jane likes to do some gardening, and she is also fond of red wine. In fact, she drinks so much that it makes financial sense for her to buy her wine by the carton.

Jane’s daughter lives a few kilometers away and has an 18-month-old girl. Jane likes to buy clothes and toys for her granddaughter, even though she has more than enough already.

How do we know all these things? Because some time ago Jane applied for a loyalty card at her local supermarket so that she could earn frequent flyer points every time she goes shopping. She now hands over her card whenever she is at the checkout.

Although her identity is kept confidential by the supermarket chain, Jane would probably recognise herself from the ‘profile’ that it has built from its database. The supermarket knows that she is a pet owner, because she buys cat food. It knows that she drives to work, because she buys fuel at a petrol station owned by the same corporation. From her regular purchases it also knows that she is a gardener and a wine drinker. From her occasional purchases of baby products, it has even deduced that there is a baby in the family, but that it isn’t hers. Given her age, it has assumed that Jane is a new grandmother.” – Monash University, ‘The Hidden Side of Loyalty Card Programs’.


Now let’s consider living in 2013. It is estimated that in 2 years time there will be 1 trillion personal hand held electronic devices in the world. Imagine the amount of information that companies, in fact anyone, is able to compile about you when you take into account laptop and internet usage tracking and history, and the location services on mobile phones, as well as apps like ‘Find My iPhone’, and ‘checking in’ to places on Facebook.

I can type a person’s name into Facebook right now, and provided their security is not top-notch, can find out a lot of information about them which I can then use to my advantage: I can see pages they’ve ‘liked’ telling me their interests and potentially products that they may be interested in buying; I can scroll through their friends and create a social profile through their online interactions with these people; I can see when they were born, where they live, where they work, where they went to school, who they’re in a relationship with, what languages they speak, what their political and religious views are and any other information that they chose to put in the general about section.


General Motors have recently released a proposal for electronic billboards that will connect to the wifi on the GPS in your car, and send you personalized advertising on this billboard, depending on the destination you have put into your GPS, and the history of destinations stored on there. There is also talk of using the voice activation software in GPS devices to predict the approximate age and gender of the person driving the car.

Google and other internet services, use information about things that you have recently searched the internet for, or things you have looked at on Youtube, to advertise specifically to you. If you search Google for plane flights to Europe, every day for a week, then the automatic advertising on Google when it registers that it is your computer in use, will be specified around that, even if that’s not actually what you’re searching for a week later.


Right now, looking at the advertising on the side of my Facebook news feed, I can see advertising specified at me because I am a girl – shoes and dresses – and advertising specified at me because of pages that my friends have ‘liked’ – Coles and Vodafone – but also advertising specified at me because of status posts that I have made using song lyrics – hip hop music tickets.

The information that these companies have on us, and can gather in not much more than 10 minutes of searching the internet, is incredibly scary. They target you with the advertising when they can tell that you are at your most vulnerable, and they are getting better and better at it as time goes on. That’s not even to mention the fact that as long as it is unidentifiable by a company (but you could probably pick your own profile looking at it out of a bunch), then they can sell the information they have on you to 3rd party companies. Which may be ones that you don’t have a loyalty card with, or may be ones that you don’t even shop at but want to advertise to you anyway.

It’s only going to get worse – they’re going to know more about you, more easily, and be more and more willing to exploit that.

Read the paper and watch the episode. The facts are frightening. And they are real.

How do we fight it? Don’t get loyalty cards, don’t sign up for customer feedback, don’t fill out surveys. Pay with cash, not by card. Don’t ‘check in’ to places on Facebook, keep your social media security settings as tight as possible, don’t put personal information on the internet. Install anti-tracking software on your laptop, get a map instead of a GPS and turn off the Bluetooth and location services on your mobile phones.


It’s hard to be invisible from all this advertising and data collection, but there are things we can do to prevent major national companies knowing so much about us, that they know we’re pregnant before we do.