Techno Punks / Credit Card Dinosaurs and Fossilized Coupons

The coupons that come with your monthly credit card statement may seem like pre-fab waste, but they're actually glorious relics of our consumer past and forbearer of the lazy commerce of the digital age.

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When you break it all down, most modern day conflicts are basically a struggle between the old and new, tradition and progress. And advertisers love to play with this theme, applying it to everything from cars to chocolate.

You can even see this tension played out on your monthly credit card bill. Here too exists the struggle between the analog and the digital – between the copper cables of the past and the fiber optimism of the future.

For years, we Techno Punks have been perplexed by these incomprehensible pages arriving each month to our real-world addresses. But Orli Yakuel, a blogger and start-up consultant, shed light on the issue with a recent Facebook status update:

"Every month I receive my credit card bill and find that not a single thing among the many pages of coupons actually offers something that interests me," she wrote. "Not even on the month of my birthday."

She rightly wonders why, if Google has managed to tailor ads to match the content of her most recent email, why can't the credit card company get its act together to narrow its products to match her latest shopping spree?

"I'm not afraid that my information will reach advertisers," she insisted. "If they have something interesting to offer me – I want to find out about it."

Aside from the crime of not acknowledging her birthday, we want to tell Yakuel that, unfortunately, the credit card companies actually have nearly zero interest – or incentive – in catering to her whims. It doesn't make economic sense on their side. They get paid the big advertising bucks based on the number of people who see the ads, not based on how many of them actually buy.

Let's also not forget the joke of what passes for competition between credit card issuers in Israel. It isn't worth their while to get a techno punk worthy computer system that will delve into Orli's shopping habits, analyze them and then provide her some added consumer value.

It makes more cents for them to charge no-name importers and goods distributors thousands of shekels to ride on the coattails of their mailing list and offer an eclectic mix of largely unusable products on thin, unattractive paper. The model is more like TV and radio broadcasts that accept a random assortment of advertising, toss it up in the air, and whatever sticks, sticks. As a viewer or listener, you take what you get.

But why every month do we hesitate just slightly before tossing the coupon booklet into the garbage, perfunctorily perusing through the offerings of a wonder pillow, a nose-hair trimmer or an electric shock abs exercising device. What leads to this primal need to consider buying whatever dreck is offered as long as we can get a deal on it?   

Deep in the fog of digital pre-history, coupons were the precursor to the techno punk's digital lifestyle. In a nameless somewhere in the 1980s and early 1990s, coupons were the closest thing to the Internet when it came to convenience bargain shopping.

They're small, compact and to the point, perfect for those who like to shop in their pajamas on the couch without ever leaving the comfort of their home, just like today's e-commerce.

But the digital era has pushed the coupon booklet to the margins of consumer society. At our work desks, on our iPad at home, on the smartphone in our pocket, we receive or have access to millions of little coupons every second. No need to wait an entire month.

And these devices recognize us, study us and cross-reference data from thousands of our actions and provide the information to marketers. What we buy, where we go out, what we eat, how many kids we have, what games they enjoy playing and what our significant other would like as a birthday present: they know it all.

We give into this game, and like Orli, we won't make a big fuss if our data is passed on to a third-party vendor if we benefit too.  We really don't care if they know what YouTube video we watched or having some remote computer analyze our data to then assume, based on all the other folks of our same age, sex, education, etc. what book we're supposed to like.

But what does the "real" me want? Who cares as long as these hawkers promise to make life easier and more comfortable? In truth, the system works reasonably well, at least better than mass broadcast commercials that tend to target only a small fraction of viewers.

So given this evolution of digital targeting, you can understand our and Orli's surprise that the credit card companies are so antiquated in their strategy, for who should know better than them what we buy, where we buy it, how often and how much we pay for each purchase?

This information is of infinite value to advertisers: precise data to the last penny about what I would be willing to spend and on what. If companies are already sending us sales offers, why not do it the smart way? But the finance companies are dinosaurs and they are at least a generation behind the times. They have the infrastructure but, apparently, not the desire.

We contacted the credit card companies to see what's up. They explained that they actually do value precise data on consumers' shopping habits. They use if for making appropriate sales promotions,  usually for non-bank issued rewards credit cards, like those issued by supermarket chains. Here, the competition is stiff and the retail chains' hunger for customers is greater, so they invest more resources in learning about their customers and marketing the most worthwhile deals.

Ok, fine. But that's no excuse for the useless monthly coupons that arrive with our credit card bills like a visit from some shopping time capsule in the past. To the credit card companies, we humbly advise that to avoid ending  up as dinosaurs in a biodegradable, digital world,  you should make the effort to tailor your coupons to those who would actually be interested in them.

Maybe you should find out what Ms. Yakuel would like for her birthday. Maybe you should bother to find out which gadget will next meet our techno punk fancy say, in time for our next credit card statement?

When the digital world has moved on to targeted marketing, credit card companies still drown consumers in random coupons, a strategy as old as the Mona Lisa.