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Political targeting: An unhealthy business

A pox on voter choice indeed

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Over-targeting of electoral messages can cause problems, as the Labour Party found out to its cost last week when opponents accused it of exploiting confidential individual data to warn breast cancer sufferers that they might die under a Tory government.

The episode was, according to Tory leader David Cameron "sick" and "an absolutely appalling way to behave", while Lib Dem Treasury Spokesman Vince Cable speaking on the BBC's Politics Show characterised the Labour Party’s behaviour as "rather disreputable".

Cable went on to urge an investigation to establish whether cancer sufferers had been targeted by party political material, and "to find out if there has been abuse".

So have the Labour Party been acting unethically – or even illegally – and what does this latest fracas have to say about the state of targeting in the UK today?

The postcard in question – believed to be part of a 250,000 direct mail campaign - claimed that a Labour guarantee patients would see a cancer specialist within two weeks would be scrapped by the Tories. The cards featured a message from a breast cancer survivor in praise of Labour's policy and asked ominously: "Are the Tories a change you can afford?"

Unfortunately for Labour, some of these cards landed on the doormats of patients who had received cancer treatment within the last five years. Cue outrage in the Daily Mail, and a great deal of hostile criticism from opposition politicians.

Of course, targeting could mean many different things, and it will be up to individual voters to decide what degree of targeting is acceptable in these cases.

Despite a degree of innuendo from Tories and Lib Dems on the subject, it seems likely that no official data was used. According to a report in the Guardian, "Labour has categorically denied using privileged government information to target voters for electoral gain". It would be electoral suicide to lie in such an egregious fashion on so sensitive an issue in the run-up to the election.

It is possible that the mailing list was compiled from commercially available lists, including names of individuals who, perhaps unwisely, did consent at one point in their lives to "receive details of further offers of interest". Even some charity lists are available for rental: again, though, this is unlikely.

Far more likely is that Labour used simple electoral roll names, overlaid with one of the major geodemographic targeting systems currently available in the UK. It is reported that both Labour and Tories make use of Experian and their Mosaic system to increase the likelihood of hitting their core target groups.

However, an analysis of the event in Marketing Week suggests that not even this was necessary. They write: "The epidemiology of breast cancer indicates that one in 12 women are likely to contract it before the age of 95.

"If the catchment area for Labour’s leaflets had an older, more female profile, then that probability could be higher – perhaps one in nine. So completely unintentionally, the party may have delivered messages right to the people most affected, with no clever data work (or breach of the DPA)."

So that’s that? Not quite. The whole episode highlights an issue that occasionally bothers some of the more aware direct marketers and, even more rarely, the Equalities Commission.

It is unlawful to discriminate directly on grounds such as race, gender, etc in the provision of goods and services. So much we take for granted. But it is also unlawful to discriminate indirectly, through the application of a rule or condition that applies disproportionately to one group relative to the rest of the population.

That includes, the courts have held, differences that are only observable statistically. The sort of difference, in fact, that might occur when using the targeting schemes provided by companies such as Experian and CACI.

It is for this reason that some countries in Europe – Germany is a good example – are opposed to the use of targeting in direct marketing on principle.

It is at the root of a change of description some years back by a certain geodemographic company, removing the implication of "multi-ethnicity" from one of their categories and replacing it with "cosmopolitan". It could also explain why a major London department store, sometimes boycotted for reasons of Middle East-related controversy, has had a chequered history in promoting itself in certain parts of north London.

Targeting remains an accepted part of the British marketing landscape, but it may be rather less lawful than we think. ®

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