Apple applies for patent to deliver ads based on credit status

In USPTO Application 20150199725, Apple describes a system for targeting advertisements “based on the amount of pre-paid credit available to each user.”  The application goes on to say that “An advantage of such targeted advertising is that only advertisements for goods and services which particular users can afford, are delivered to these users.”

I’m unhappy with this for a few reasons.  My first objection is that the human-readable description on the application is deceptive.  Your pre-paid balance is not an indicator of what you “can afford.” For example, if you deposit $X each week for your college kid’s expenses, that balance on the card doesn’t mean (s)he can “afford” luxury products costing $X or less. If you are me, it means they can afford ramen noodles, paper, pens and not much else.

People shouldn’t be bombarded with ads products costing $X or less just because that amount shows up in their debit card regularly. It would be a very effective technique to market items with a street price of $(1.25*X) discounted to $X to such people. That changes the equation from “can’t afford to buy it” to “can’t afford *not* to buy it, at these prices!”

Ads for things that cost more than you can spend are described in the application as being disappointing.  But I submit that a constant barrage of ads for things you know you can buy but should not is worse.  Having to say no to things you obviously cannot buy gives you practice saying no to things you should not buy.  You get used to a large portion of things in your ad stream being unavailable.  Exercising that “no muscle” helps at times of vigilance fatigue when you are sorely tempted to do something self-destructive, and who doesn’t have days like that?

On the other hand, a constant stream of things you want, have the cash to pay for, but really cannot afford would be depressing.  It leads toward the rationalization of “why shouldn’t I buy this? I can afford it.”  In a bit of psychological alchemy, it converts “can pay for” to “can afford” much as the patent application conflates the two and to the same ends.  I suspect there are people for whom this system will make shopping even more addictive than it already is and I doubt they can get a medical exemption from the advertiser.  At least not without agreeing to let the advertiser use their medically diagnosed addiction as a targeting criteria.

I can see it now.  Ads for “Shopaholics Pseudonymous – more effective than any 12-Step program and only $69.95/month!”

I also wonder about the subtle but significant disconnect between the example of “pre-paid credit” used in the human-readable introduction, versus the text of the patent claims which consistently use the words “credit status” as the decision criteria. Credit status is a lot broader term than pre-paid credit and could include FICO scores, payment history, income-to-debt ratio, etc. Future Terms Of Service documents supporting this technology could use a similar suggestive and ambiguous language construction to bootstrap unwitting permanent permission grants by consumers that allow advertisers to run full credit reports at will.

Various Federal and State laws restrict who is allowed to pull your credit report and for what reasons. The last project I worked on at Equifax was designed to get as far as possible around those laws in order to sell credit-qualified mailing lists without recording a credit report hit. Bypassing those legal restrictions is the holy grail of reporting agencies because it opens up their information database to lucrative new markets eager for that data. Of course, none of that matters once the consumer explicitly grants permission and a TOS worded to grant access to your “credit status” could do just that.

Of all the claims in the application, I especially like this one:

[0044] In one embodiment, the advertisement management system 14 is arranged to reserve a portion of the available credit (or actual credit) equal to the amount of an item in an advertisement being delivered to a user upon delivery of the advertisement. Thus, if the user wants to purchase the advertised item, they would definitely have available credit. However, the user would not be able to use this reserved credit, if needed, for other purchases.

Assuming widgets cost more than half your balance and you don’t like Apple’s widget on offer, you are prevented from buying Orange’s widget until the charge hold expires.

Incidentally, substitute “gun” for “widget” and Apple just implemented a mandatory cooling-off period for gun sales. Well, except for the one Apple wanted to sell you. You can have that one immediately.

IYou can't buy this am imagining the series of ads you get. Say you have $500 of credit available. The first few ads are for $100 items like expensive wine or flower delivery for your spouse. But now the credit is reserved and you have only $200 left to spend so the next ads are for a pair of mid-tier headphones and a new mobile handset costing $50 and 2-years of indentured servitude. But those ads reserved some of your balance too and now you have less than $100 available.

It continues on like this until the only ads you receive are for a soft drink in the vending machine and all you can afford there is the generic soda and not the Coke or Pepsi. At some point you are turned down at the grocery checkout trying to buy baby formula and diapers because Apple’s been pushing ads for iPads at you all day.

Many years ago, Eve took a bite out of the apple and Bad Things happened.  Hang onto your wallets folks because it looks like the Apple is finally getting around to biting back.