Even pretending to use your spending data for Valentine’s Day ads is becoming a bad idea

Do I know you?
Do I know you?
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
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Did you know Brits spend an average of £50.56 ($65.15 ) at online florists for Valentine’s Day? Or that jewelry sales for the big day are expected to decline in the US this year? For payment companies with access to spending data, pitching these insights to reporters is a clever way to win attention.

Mastercard has been running these types of campaigns around the world for several years. But it can go wrong.

Revolut, a fintech payment-app based in London, sparked a media frenzy in the UK when it ran ads about customers purportedly ordering single takeaway meals on the romantic day, sometimes more formally known as the Feast of Saint Valentine:

Iona Bain, founder of the Young Money Blog, ignited the online bonfire earlier this month when she called out the ad for being tone deaf and single-shaming. The marketing had other problems, too—Revolut claimed in another ad that 11,867 customers had bought a vegan sausage roll in the past month. The Financial Times (paywall) later reported that the upstart doesn’t collect data that’s granular enough to provide such insights. The company told the newspaper that the numbers were invented.

Making up data and tone-deaf ads are bad enough. But the Revolut campaign also highlights how consumers are becoming less tolerant of the creepy factor, even when the data is lumped together and anonymous. Mastercard, Worldpay, and Spotify ads (or press releases) using anonymized payment data may not have started a firestorm in the past (and, to be clear, nobody is suggesting their data was fabricated). But that was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. To recap: Cambridge Analytica reportedly used data held by Facebook to build psychological profiles and influence US voters prior to the 2016 presidential election.

The Facebook episode that may prove to be a turning point. If Twitter comments in reaction to Revolut’s ad are any indication, consumers are becoming turned off by the way companies use their data. Of course, this worry is coming a bit late. Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies already harvest immense and growing amounts of personal data and then use it to sell advertising. Consumer-credit data companies like Equifax have been surveilling people since before the internet was invented.

Firms like Mastercard, Worldpay, and Revolut have completely different business models than big tech, and those models are based on transactions, or subscriptions for premium service, rather than selling personal data. So if people are worried about Revolut’s ad, they should probably be even more alarmed about what’s happening on the rest of the apps on their phone.

The creepy factor could also pose a problem for some types of new business models. Financial companies like JPMorgan say they envision a world of self-driving, automated finance, where you get suggestions about lowering your utility bill or refinancing your mortgage, by automatically analyzing your spending history and behavior. In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, consumers could rightly be far more suspicious about digital convenience than they used to be, even when it may be benign.

In the meantime, Revolut is looking to make amends. If you were offended by their ad, the fintech is having a party for angry hearts today (Feb. 14).