Credit Card Companies Consider Using Transaction Data to Target Ads

The two largest credit card networks, Visa and MasterCard, are pushing into a new business: using what they know about people's credit card purchases for targeting them with ads online.

Their plans, if implemented, would represent not only a technological feat -- tying people's internet lives with shopping activities -- but also an erosion of the idea of anonymity on the web. It is an effort by the two companies to profit by selling access to the insights they gather about people with every credit card transaction.

The technology is still evolving. According to ad executives briefed on some of the ideas, a holy grail would be to show, for instance, a weight loss ad to a person who just swiped their card at a fast-food chain -- then track whether that person bought the advertised products. Currently, web ads generally are based on a person's online behavior but not information tied to his or her identity or activities in the brick-and-mortar world.

In one particularly futuristic idea, a Visa patent application published this year describes incorporating information from DNA databanks, among other personal details, into profiles that could be used to target people online.

MasterCard earlier this year proposed an idea to ad executives to link internet users to information about actual purchase behaviors for ad targeting, according to a MasterCard document and executives at some of the world's largest ad companies who were involved in the talks. "You are what you buy," the MasterCard document says.

MasterCard, which confirms its document was shared with at least four companies, now says it has "put aside" that idea because of restrictions over how financial services companies can use customer data. The company says the document was created in April for "exploratory conversations."

It now is pursuing a plan to sell marketers an analysis of anonymous, aggregated data sorted into marketing "segments," such as people with a high propensity to be interested in international travel. MasterCard said its plan is "completely new to the industry" and that it still is working through the details of how it will work.

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