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German bank used "neuro-marketing" to profile, up-sell its customers


Northern German Radio (NDR) reported in April that Germany's largest savings bank, Hamburg-based HaSpa, had been using psychological profiling software since 2007 to divide their clients into different classifications, in order to help its salespeople sell them more "products", such as insurance or stocks.


HaSpa said its use of the software, called Sensus, was actually in the "best interests" of its customers, because it allowed the bank to tailor its sales pitches to their individual needs. But in response to the uproar that resulted when its profile-driven sales tactics were revealed to the public, HaSpa said it had discontinued the practice.


Among the categories that clients were put into were Adventurer, Aficionado, Custodian, Disciplined, and Hedonist. Each category included an outline of that profile's attitudes, motives, and values, as well as talking points that salespeople could use to manipulate them, including specific styles of communication and even keywords to use.


The Hedonist, for example, was described as someone who could be easily pressured, whereas the Adventurer must be allowed to decided for him/herself. The strategy for manipulating "Guardians" (apparently clients with dependents) suggested that salespeople make them feel fear, in order to induce them to buy lucrative long-term insurance.


HaSpa's use of Sensus was apparently a violation of German consumer law, which requires financial advisors to give their clients correct advice based on their individual needs and portfolios, rather than trying to steer them to products that would be more profitable for the bank. (We could use a similar law, or just the enforcement of existing ones, in the U.S.)


According to NDR, the only way the bank could have used the software legally is if it had obtained permission from its customers first — which seems unlikely, given that they would essentially be giving consent to being profiled in order to help salespeople target and manipulate them into more costly, and potentially more risky, investments.


So-called "neuro-marketing" is a relatively new, corporate-driven field of brain research that studies people's subliminal responses to products and advertising. It remains unclear, however, exactly what information HaSpa used to profile its clients. Tellingly, certain accounts required HaSpa customers to agree to allow their data to be evaluated in the U.S.