Should your DNA data be used to sell products?

Illustration: @tampatra via Twenty20
Jan 08, 2021

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Privately owned companies, such as 23andMe and, are accumulating massive databases since genetic testing kits first appeared on the market in 2013.

These genetic datasets, more commonly used in healthcare applications, are finding their way into marketing campaigns:

  • Spotify has partnered with Ancestry to offer users the ability to upload their data and create playlists matched to their genetic ancestry. 
  • AirBnB has partnered with 23andMe to offer cultural trips and experiences tailored to one’s genetic heritage.
  • Aeromexico ran ads offering a discount matching one’s percentage of “Mexican DNA.”

The possibilities for using genetic information to market products and services seem as infinite as the genetic variation among human beings. But a study from Wharton, titled “Genetic Data: Potential Uses and Misuses in Marketing,” warns marketers to proceed with caution. Serious ethical concerns about autonomy, privacy, discrimination and misinformation abound, and there are few laws that address these concerns.

“People might not realize the amount of information their DNA contains and the potential consequences of leaving their data within the hand of for-profit companies,” postdoctoral researcher and co-author Remi Daviet recently told Knowledge@Wharton.

An individual’s data could be sold to other companies, and relatives who share part of their genome could even be at risk.

The value of genetic data for marketing purposes also depends on its capacity to improve predictions beyond already existing data used to predict personalized messaging and recommendations. Said Dr. Daviet, “While we know that genetic data is informative about virtually every human trait and behavior, we don’t know in which sectors, for which products, and by how much it is informative beyond existing data.”

Wharton marketing professor and co-author Gideon Nave added that consumers may overly trust their genetic data when environmental factors may play a much larger role.

Dr. Nave said, “Over the past years we have witnessed the emergence of startups that allegedly tailor wine recommendations or help people find romantic partners based on their genetic markup. These applications are not based on solid science, and we are concerned that the average consumer might not realize that.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see more risks than potential benefits for retailers and brands in using genetic data for marketing purposes? Will most consumers eventually be receptive to marketers using their genetic data for personalized messages or suggestions?

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"Using DNA data as a marketing tool is legally questionable, ethically fraught, and will trip the creep factor alarm for most people."

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20 Comments on "Should your DNA data be used to sell products?"

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Mark Ryski

This is potentially very dangerous. Being stalked digitally online is bad enough, but to willingly provide private companies with your DNA – perhaps your most personal of personal information, is reckless and short-sighted. It all starts innocuously enough, until your DNA gets used to exclude you from, say, insurance coverage. The possibilities for abuse are endless. Notwithstanding the interest in consumer DNA mapping services listed, I don’t believe that people will generally be interested in giving up their DNA for marketing purposes.

Bob Amster

More risks. This constitutes an invasion of privacy, in my opinion. In addition, if this becomes a trend, it will bring with it the quintessential scammers that usually follow (like Doctor Feelgood…).

Dave Bruno

I sincerely and fervently hope that consumers stop the “exchange of privacy for discounts” madness before they start sharing their DNA tests with marketers. It’s already mildly terrifying to a Boomer like me (who makes his living in marketing, by the way) to see how willingly people of younger generations give away their private information in search of a discount, perk, or worst of all, status. I hope people quickly recognize the massive inherent risks in sharing DNA data — and for what? A customized playlist?

Jeff Weidauer

Using DNA data as a marketing tool is legally questionable, ethically fraught, and will trip the creep factor alarm for most people.

Di Di Chan

No! I don’t see consumers being OK sharing their genetic data for marketing purposes and I don’t see companies significantly benefiting from additional DNA data either. There are plenty of effective personalized recommendation engines that are way less intrusive.

Cathy Hotka

Who wants to get an email saying “you’re at increased risk of [illness] because of your Irish heritage. Ask your doctor about [this drug] today!” Talk about creeptastic.

Georganne Bender

We already know that most people have no idea how much information they give companies access to just by clicking boxes on social media but this takes privacy issues to a whole new level. Sure, some people will allow access simply because it’s a novel idea, but I hope most will realize there is danger to themselves and their families in randomly sharing DNA data.

Spotify using DNA to create a playlist to match your genetic ancestry is crazy and Ancestry allowing this to happen hurts its credibility. From where I stand, no company needs to have your DNA information just to sell you a product.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
1 year 10 months ago

Wow – the next level of marketing – I do not like it. To give discounts based on genetic or hereditary traits to increase sales is bordering on intrusiveness. The last thing I need is to get discounts because I am left-handed or because my hair on my head grows too fast – no thank you.

Neil Saunders

There are serious and sensible consumer applications for DNA data such as exploring food allergies, helping people with fitness and diet, and so forth. However I see these as medical matters and the use of any data should be subject to medical confidentiality and control.

Using DNA for general marketing is a step too far. And it can be inappropriate – for example, offering people discounting based on their Mexican DNA! I mean, seriously!

The keys here are strict rules over how DNA data can be used and to give consumers some control within that framework as to how they want to share information.

Shep Hyken

In the future of marketing, DNA will be similar to giving someone your mobile phone number. In the short term, there is risk. Companies like need to make it VERY clear to their customer that they are using the DNA for marketing purposes. There should be at least a double opt-in to get permission to do so. Maybe more. The explanation must be perfectly clear to the customer why they are being asked and what the benefit to letting their DNA be used will be. FYI, I’m the guy that says, “Put a chip in my neck and do what you want as long as it makes my life better.”

Rich Kizer

Wow! This is just too invasive — and creepy. Could a company ever know me better than me? No! At least I hope not!

Harley Feldman

The risks in using DNA for marketing are very high because the consequences are not well known today due to the wide range of information available from the DNA that is still unknown or untested. As the breadth of information available from DNA expands, it will be very difficult to stop unintended consequences once marketers have the DNA data. As the uses of the DNA data are abused, and they undoubtedly will be, consumers will be less likely to support its use.

Ken Lonyai

Most people are cooperative actors around breaching their own privacy despite anything they say in surveys. That’s their choice. The real issue here are those whose DNA traits are compromised by a sloppy relative that allows enough sharing of data that other biological relatives are identified — potentially even some who have never met. Without knowing more details about usages/partnerships, it’s hard to make a judgment about that danger, but one thing is for sure: shared/accumulated/interpolated data can never be taken back, at least until the U.S. gets authentically serious about data privacy.

Laura Davis
Laura Davis
Founder, Branded Ground
1 year 10 months ago

This is totally egregious and it skates the edge of racial profiling. I mean we can’t track assumed race with anonymized cameras to target product offers in stores but these firms can harvest a person’s DNA to market to them? I certainly have a new privacy topic to beat the drum on now!

Steve Montgomery

The real risk I see is for the people who provide their DNA to a database for one purpose and then discover it is being used for commercial purposes or worse. I have never submitted, nor will I ever submit, my DNA to one of these databases.

Meaghan Brophy

The idea of being marketed to based on my DNA makes my skin crawl. As consumers, we’ve become more and more comfortable with personalized marketing over the years, but using DNA feels like a hard line. There are way too many risks. The examples listed in the discussion – Spotify playlists and airline discounts – seem innocuous enough, but there’s a much darker side to this where instead of fun discounts, people’s DNA is used against them.

Peter Charness

I think this is well past the slippery slope. I just had a quick look at the 14 clause long legalistic Ancestry agreement, which includes a clause that they can change the terms of the agreement at any time (and if you keep using the services you’ve tacitly agreed to the changes).

Let’s face it, there’s a huge difference between consent and informed consent. How many people are capable of reading and understanding these click through agreements, or take the time when they receive a “notice of change to our privacy agreement” to actually click into another long and legalistic agreement to find and understand the changes?

I think most privacy (yes even cookie permissions) agreements are really a click through uninformed consent that — let’s be real — almost no one takes the time to read, or where untrained consumers really can’t understand their liability. I actually think there needs to be consumer protection legislation starting at least with a requirement for plain English agreements with unambiguous and direct warnings.

Ricardo Belmar

The only response to DNA-based marketing is the “ultimate creepy factor!”

The risk is just too high and too easy for misuse and abuse of this sort of data. I don’t see consumers wanting to accept this for any degree of benefit.

James Tenser

Acknowledging the enormous “creep factor” associated with this notion, let me complicate the discussion about DNA-targeted marketing by posing the questions: To what end and for which products?

What if revealing your genetic traits could enable pharmaceutical marketers to recommend preferred medicines for you on an individualized basis? Not all disease treatments work equally well for all individuals, so this might save your life.

What if your DNA profile could enable marketers to recommend individualized food options that are more likely to preserve your well being and extend your life span? Would that have value?

Continuing down the slippery slope: What if your DNA profile could enable marketers to better guess your flavor or color preferences and curate a more relevant product assortment? Is that worth something?

Consumers will eventually weigh intrusiveness of sharing DNA data against perceived value received. As these potentials become more familiar and less strange, younger folks, especially, will likely be more receptive. Between now and then, I’d anticipate a spirited debate among regulators, ethicists and consumer advocates.

Craig Sundstrom

I think 8% of people didn’t understand the question. 🙂

Seriously though, I think this idea doesn’t “just cross the line,” it vaults over it … with room to spare. I can’t see this idea ever getting off the ground in my lifetime; and I’m more than OK with that.

"Using DNA data as a marketing tool is legally questionable, ethically fraught, and will trip the creep factor alarm for most people."

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