Aeroplan survey of consumers stirs the hornet’s nest of data, privacy and politics

Canadian travel rewards program Aeroplan is in hot water with customers over questions included in a recent consumer survey which were well outside the scope of travel preferences and offended some account holders.

The marketing survey, which included over 80 questions, measured participants’ sentiment on brands and asked questions on shopping habits. However, it then ventured on to attitudes on so-called “traditional” family structures and attitudes towards immigrants.

It was the phrasing of these prompts that Aeroplan members found most offensive. They asked survey participants to rate how strongly they agreed with statements including:

  • “Overall, there is too much immigration. It threatens the purity of the country”
  • “Getting married and having children is the only real way of having a family”
  • “The father of the family must be master in his own house”
  • “Whatever people say, men have a certain natural superiority over women, and nothing can change this”

While participants could rate each of these statements anywhere from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”, the choice of overtly bigoted and sexist language, and the lack of balanced counter statements which might have presented alternative views for participants to rate, was problematic.

Mike Layton, a Toronto-based activist with more than 26,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted:

“Language IS important. How questions are asked can often shape answers but more damaging—shape people’s perspectives. Did you ask about households with parents sharing responsibility? About how our society is made more prosperous by welcoming people from other countries?”

Some disagreed that the statements themselves could influence people’s attitudes, but Aeroplan did not dispute that including these statements in the survey was wrong. Aimia, Aeroplan’s owner, told CBC that the company had not read the questions posed by its contracted market research firm CROP before the survey was sent out.

Aeroplan committed to erasing all data gathered on customers through this survey and apologized. It tweeted:

An Aimia spokesperson also told CBC: “I was surprised by the questions myself. After looking into it, there are aspects of the survey that don’t meet the standards we hold ourselves to in terms of the kind of information we gather.”

A cautionary tale of our times

This example highlights the importance of working closely with your market research firm – or indeed any third party who you allow to engage with your customers on your behalf – to understand their process, methodology and intentions before a survey or any form of communication goes out in your company’s name.

As we’ve learned from the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica event, consumers may not be aware of the implications of sharing personal information online and may react badly when they do understand those implications. The fact is consumers may not want to be known or understood that well.

Companies now have the profiling tools and the computing power to gather enough information about people that brands could get to know their customers better than customers know themselves.

The question is not whether you can but whether you should. And in the current data climate, stronger checks and balances – such as seeing what your agencies are doing – should be put in place.


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