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Genetic Data and Marketing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Ethics

Genetic Data and Marketing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Ethics

Remi Daviet, Gideon Nave and Jerry Wind

Development of cost-effective techniques for measuring the human genome has led to an exponential growth in the direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT) industry over the past two decades. It is estimated that over 30 million customers have already taken a DNA test. At the same time, large-scale, publicly-funded genetic data collection efforts have taken off in many countries around the globe. As a result, vast datasets containing individual-level genetic measures now reside on servers owned by private companies and governments. Several global firms, such as AirBnB and Spotify, have already partnered with DTC-GT companies and developed business strategies that use genetic data for marketing purposes. 

A new Journal of Marketing study is the first attempt to systematically assess the implications of this development for the field of marketing. We review current research in the fields of behavioral and social genetics to develop a framework incorporating the genome as a source of consumers’ profiles and actions. We then survey the range of potential uses of genetic data for marketing strategy and research, and raise serious concerns about ethical challenges that arise.

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Potential marketing applications include using genetic measures as bases for segmentation and targeting (identifying and reaching subsets of customers with similar needs), an approach that is expected to be particularly effective when marketing health, nutrition, and beauty products. We also discuss the potential of using genetic data for creative strategies that leverage consumers’ fascination for their genomes to increase their sense of community and personalization by building bridges between people and their distant familial and cultural histories. 

Promising research applications include reliance on genetically informed study designs to test causal relations between variables and refinement of consumer theory by uncovering biological mechanisms underlying behavior.

While it is tempting to think of the appeals of using genetic data for business applications, we also caution against several ethical challenges specific to the use of genetic data in marketing. These challenges arise from four important unique features of genetic data:

  1. individuals can easily be identified by a small fraction of their genetic data;
  2. it is informative about one’s relatives, including those who never consented to share any of their data;
  3. it is predictive, to some degree, of almost every human trait; and
  4. it is immutable.

Because of these features, the use of genetic data by marketers might create serious threats to consumer autonomy and privacy. There is also potential for misinformation, as consumers perceptions of genetics might lead them to believe that genetic-based recommendations are always backed by solid science – which might not always be the case.

These issues are barely (if ever) addressed by current regulations. In the US, for example, the license to use and share genetic data for marketing purposes depends on the privacy policy of each individual DTC-GT company. Many US-based companies do not provide their customers any privacy information prior to the purchase of genetic-testing kits and the policies of many others indicate that they may use genetic data for purposes other than delivering ancestry and health reports. Under current European law, one must explicitly consent to the processing of such data, yet consumers might easily approve mining of their data without reading the legal terms and services. Once such consent is provided, virtually every marketing application becomes possible despite the strict sharing restrictions in place.

Finally, we highlight several gaps in the current state of knowledge and set an agenda for future research. Important open questions include the need to evaluate to what extent are genetic measures predictive relatively to other types of data that are readily available to marketers, and how consumers will react to the use of their data by private companies. 

Read the full article

From: Remi Daviet, Gideon Nave, and Jerry Wind, “Genetic Data: Potential Uses and Misuses in Marketing,” Journal of Marketing.

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Remi Daviet is a postdoctoral researcher, University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Gideon Nave is Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Jerry Wind is Lauder Professor Emeritus of Marketing, University of Pennsylvania, USA.