NEW YORK—In an effort to more closely observe the group’s buying habits and personal behaviors, a growing number of corporations are turning to tag and release programs to study American consumers, sources confirmed Friday.
According to reports, multinationals such as Kraft, General Electric, Goodyear, and Apple have embraced the technique of tracking down potential customers in their natural habitats of department stores and supermarkets, forcibly tranquilizing them as they shop, and then fitting them with electronic tracking devices that allow marketing departments to keep a detailed record of individuals’ every movement and purchasing decision.
“In recent weeks, we have employed our tag and release initiative to sedate and earmark consumers in several Costco parking lots and Best Buy television aisles, which has already yielded valuable data from numerous middle-class family units,” said Sony market researcher Nathan McElroy, whose team gathers data on the consumer population by attaching radio-transponder collars to specimens across all age groups and income levels. “Today we subdued and chipped a beautiful white male earning $60,000 annually whose subsequent actions—where he eats, where he works, whether he purchases extended warranties on electronic devices—will give us important insights into his demographic.”
“We’re really starting to get a clear idea of just what sales promotions and big-ticket expenditures make these fascinating creatures tick,” he continued.
Representatives from several Fortune 500 companies described to reporters a delicate process in which marketing associates journey to such varied field sites as Marshalls, OfficeMax, and Bed Bath & Beyond, where they lie in wait behind a row of shopping carts or a promotional cardboard cutout. Once a desirable target moves into view, a member of the marketing team reportedly attempts to immobilize it by firing a tranquilizer dart into its neck or haunches before it can panic and skitter off into another aisle. The unconscious consumer is then fitted with a small, subdermal acoustic tag that is synced to the subject’s credit cards, allowing marketers to both physically and financially track their quarries.
Claiming that every effort is taken to employ humane handling procedures and inflict minimal trauma, marketing associates stressed that consumers always wake up in the same clothing department or mini mall in which they were found, and most obliviously resume their browsing of store shelves within 30 minutes of being sedated.
Researchers affirmed they have become increasingly interested in valuable targets such as college graduates who allot more than $500 per month to discretionary purchases, saying they have become fascinated by the group’s herd-like movements to Panera Bread and IKEA as well as their ritual use of products such as Swiffers and tablets. By monitoring these consumers as they feed, groom, use their rewards cards, and mate, marketers acknowledged they have amassed a tremendous amount of useful knowledge.
“Just last month we collar-tagged a prime specimen of a variety we’d been attempting to capture for a very long time,” said BMW marketing executive Samantha Barlow, referring to a suburban mother in her late 40s who was found gathering bunches of watercress and beet greens at a Whole Foods, where her precise weekly route through the aisles has now been recorded and analyzed. “And we finally have geolocators implanted in several dozen young professionals aged 25 to 35, whose consumption of products such as Stella Artois, Hugo Boss apparel, and designer colognes suggest they’ll provide us with fruitful data for years to come.”
“It’s important that we tag them early in the development of their buying habits,” Barlow added. “Obviously, once they reach 65, they become useless for our purposes and we remove their tags, or just let them chew them off.”
Despite the success of their tracking programs, researchers admitted their work has been hindered by limits in their methodology, noting that they are unable to observe any quantifiable activity from as many as a quarter of their tagged targets who remain sedentary almost around the clock and rarely leave their dens. Marketers noted these larger, slower specimens must often be hit with two or three darts before they can be safely approached.
“A large portion of our targets are fast food consumers, and you’ll lose 10 or 12 percent of those each year, usually to heart disease,” said Jonathan Lockhart, an independent marketing consultant. “You hate to see that, but the upside is that we get useful data we can then turn around and sell to pharmaceutical companies.”
“What’s bad news for Burger King is great news for Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer,” he added.