Category Archives: prejudice

Advertising untargeting: Letting in only good customers

Years ago we gave a talk in Nashville about stealth marketing, or figuring out how to deselect the types of prospects you don’t want responding to you. This sounds harsh but every business has customers who cost far more to serve than they generate in profit, and marketers carefully try to avoid them. Direct mail campaigns do this all the time by selecting a list of “best prospects” (and by default ignoring others).

Now individuals can let in only the right customers, too, with Oodle classifieds. Oodle, which yesterday scored a $5.6 million round of additional funding, sells everything from $600,000 homes to $150 rat terriers. The company is experimenting with a “social classifieds” app on Facebook that allows users to screen out the weirdo factor — you know, unsavory types that may respond to your offer to sell a bedroom comforter. The concept is your classified ad will only appear in front of people whom you preview first.

The idea has pros and cons. On the plus side, if you are selling a beloved vinyl collection to make room for your new baby nursery, you may want to only let it go to a friend or someone whom you believe is an appropriate audiophile, and not the anti-Beatles nut who plans on burning the records for a local PR stunt. On the con, redlining customers has a touch of prejudice in it. Back in the 1930s the federal government tied itself in knots by withholding mortgages in inner cities, contributing to urban decay, and racial profiling has gotten insurance and credit card companies in hot water.

Right or wrong, now you can sell your personal stuff to only the people you know something about.

Photo: Only Alice

Why we hate

Last May a plane conducted an aerial survey of the rainforests near Peru. Gleison Miranda snapped a photo that soon flashed across the world as evidence of a “lost tribe” shooting arrows at an unknown god in the sky. Trouble was, the story wasn’t true. Turns out the isolated people in the photo were descendants of the Tano and Aruak tribes, had been in touch with Western civilization for more than 100 years, and were shooting arrows because they thought outsiders were dangerous.

When someone strange arrives, our human instinct is to attack.

This election year has seen a lot of hate flowing in many directions. Conservatives have spread emails claiming Barack Obama is Muslim. (Colin Powell, endorsing Obama, noted he is not Muslim but so what if he is?) Some Obama supporter, fighting back, has posted the web site, but liberals have not been flawless — a group today attacked a caravan carrying Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin. British Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing predicted in February that someone will assassinate Obama if he is elected. The world is watching America as it once again turns inward to fight itself.

The fear of others, known as xenophobia, seems wired into human minds, perhaps a survival instinct left over from thousands of years of fighting for resources — when a strange tribe actually could kill you. Psychologist Markus Kemmelmeier tested this in a simple experiment. He put stamped letters on windshields of cars parked in Detroit to see how many would be dropped in the mail. Half the letters were addressed to a Christian organization, half to a Muslim group. Almost all the Christian letters were forwarded, but only about 50% of the Muslim notes were. Kemmelmeier then performed a twist; he added little American flag stickers to the letters, and found almost all the letters in both categories got mailed.

And then there was the classic case of Iowa teacher Jane Elliott, who wanted to see how quickly people could learn to hate. She began giving all students with brown eyes special privileges while withholding them from students with blue eyes. Within 24 hours the students split into two opposing camps. The “privileged” students began acting superior and casting nasty remarks at the “inferior” students, who hung their heads in shame.

The children were in third grade. Elliott ran her experiment on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

We like and help people who think like us. We fear and even slip into hatred of those who don’t. Unfortunately the base instincts that helped us survive the dark winters of Ice Ages make for an ugly election year.