The headlines are spooky:

  • Apple may check your credit card balance to show you products you can afford
  • Apple is working on a new e-commerce system based on your credit card balance
  • Apple patent serves ads based on credit card balance
  • Apple may start showing ads based on your credit card balance

Indeed, Apple’s patent does suggest that in one embodiment of its invention, the source of available credit data “may be a bank or credit card company.” But is this really possible? In short, the answer is no, there’s no easy way for a company like Apple to obtain a consumer’s balances from a bank or credit card company through other means.

A merchant, for instance, cannot retrieve the balance for a customer’s credit card, even if it has the customer’s credit card number on file.

Banks and credit card companies typically report credit card balances to one or more of the major credit bureaus, so this information is available on consumer credit reports, but consumer credit reporting is highly regulated.

It’s inconceivable that Apple would have a permissible purpose to obtain credit reports for ad targeting, even if it wanted to.

Credit bureaus have incorporated their data into ad targeting initiatives, but contrary to the headlines associated with these initiatives, they involved aggregated, non-personally identifiable demographic data and not the targeting of individual consumers, which would almost certainly be illegal.

Not a bad idea

Apple does have potential sources of purchasing power data. For instance, it could use the pre-paid balances associated with its gift cards to target consumers. This is a much smaller audience, of course, than the universe of consumers with bank and credit cards.

Despite the fact that it probably won’t be able to target consumers based on bank and credit card balances, the motivation behind Apple’s patent, to ensure that consumers don’t see ads promoting products and services they probably can’t afford, is something many advertisers should give more thought to.

So much advertising today is focused on whetting consumer desires, even when that desire is not realistically going to be translated to sales because consumers can’t afford the products and services being promoted.

They might not be able to pull data from credit reports, but advertisers do have increasing access to first and third party data that can help them infer which consumers can actually afford their wares. More should probably look to use it.