Listen to Pandora, and It Listens Back

Natasha Singer, New York Times, January 5, 2014

Pandora, the Internet radio service, is playing a new tune.

After years of customizing playlists to individual listeners by analyzing components of the songs they like, then playing them tracks with similar traits, the company has started data-mining users’ musical tastes for clues about the kinds of ads most likely to engage them.

“It’s becoming quite apparent to us that the world of playing the perfect music to people and the world of playing perfect advertising to them are strikingly similar,” says Eric Bieschke, Pandora’s chief scientist.

Consider someone who’s in an adventurous musical mood on a weekend afternoon, he says. One hypothesis is that this listener may be more likely to click on an ad for, say, adventure travel in Costa Rica than a person in an office on a Monday morning listening to familiar tunes. {snip}

A few services, like Pandora, Amazon and Netflix, were early in developing algorithms to recommend products based on an individual customer’s preferences or those of people with similar profiles. Now, some companies are trying to differentiate themselves by using their proprietary data sets to make deeper inferences about individuals and try to influence their behavior.

This online ad customization technique is known as behavioral targeting, but Pandora adds a music layer. Pandora has collected song preference and other details about more than 200 million registered users, and those people have expressed their song likes and dislikes by pressing the site’s thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons more than 35 billion times. {snip}


“The advantage of using our own in-house data is that we have it down to the individual level, to the specific person who is using Pandora,” Mr. Bieschke says. “We take all of these signals and look at correlations that lead us to come up with magical insights about somebody.”

People’s music, movie or book choices may reveal much more than commercial likes and dislikes. Certain product or cultural preferences can give glimpses into consumers’ political beliefs, religious faith, sexual orientation or other intimate issues. That means many organizations now are not merely collecting details about where we go and what we buy, but are also making inferences about who we are.


Pandora, for one, has a political ad-targeting system that has been used in presidential and congressional campaigns, and even a few for governor. It can deconstruct users’ song preferences to predict their political party of choice. (The company does not analyze listeners’ attitudes to individual political issues like abortion or fracking.)

During the next federal election cycle, for instance, Pandora users tuning into country music acts, stand-up comedians or Christian bands might hear or see ads for Republican candidates for Congress. Others listening to hip-hop tunes, or to classical acts like the Berlin Philharmonic, might hear ads for Democrats.


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  • Matthew Taylor

    I just registered at Pandora today to start listening to music. I gave incorrect zip, wrong birth date and opposite gender. They’re showing ads for shoes, dating guys and acne cream.

    • Extropico

      I do the same thing. Now if I could just figure out how to scramble the GPS and other data from my phone and car and computer so that it doesn’t get recorded on NSA and other servers in perpetuity…

    • WR_the_realist

      None of those sorts of sites ever gets my correct age or location. Keep ’em guessing.

  • Puggg

    I thought we weren’t allowed to stereotype.

    • Oil Can Harry

      If you listen to rap music Pandora will play you an ad for a bail bondsman.

  • bigone4u

    If Disqus collects data on my upvotes and downvotes, I expect that my targeted advertising will be to white robes and hoods. Guess what? Disqus would have it wrong.

    Acknowledging real differences between the races and between men and women has nothing to do with racism or misogynism. It has to do with me trying to understand the insanity that has infected the West. I’d rather read books and try to strategize for a better world for everyone than burn crosses. Both blacks and whites would be better of it we separated. Let’s see the advertisers sell that thought.

    • WR_the_realist

      I use this account only for Amren, because I see no reason to make life easy for the data miners (or the career destroyers at the $PLC). Needless to say, I’m sure the NSA would have no trouble figuring out who I am and everything about me if they want to. I just have to hope they have bigger fish to fry.

  • sbuffalonative

    Others listening to hip-hop tunes, or to classical acts like the Berlin Philharmonic, might hear ads for Democrats.

    I don’t know what to make of this; hip-hop or classical.

    All I know is that every free app or service is now little more than data mining. We are not individuals. We are now a ‘target audience’ of individuals.

    • GeneticsareDestiny

      Upper class whites and blacks of any class are very commonly Democrats, and those are the groups that would generally be listening to classical or hip-hop music respectively.

  • Hunter Morrow

    Hip Hop is way to make yourself a music negro. Just say no to negro noise.

    • LeGrandDerangement

      How can they categorize “hip-hop” with classical?

  • Marc Zuckurburg

    I am glad to find out that you like ads.

    Come to Facebook. You’ll get lots of those!

    • Katherine McChesney

      I don’t ‘get it’. All I see are sequences of numbers.

  • borogirl54

    Also, if you listen to R&B or Hip Hop, does this mean you will get ads for hair grease and relaxers?

  • Spartacus

    If this is true, then how come my google account isn’t blocked Hitler speeches ?

  • Katherine McChesney

    I have Netflix and I prefer films with White casts. I especially like the British-made films. Apparently they don’t ‘get’ my preferences as they are always recommending I watch East Asian and East Indian garbage.

    • LACounty

      TCM often shows good old quality White movies.

    • Lewis33

      I hear you…I have watched almost all of the Brit/Aussie/Irish shows Netflix has too offer and it has spoiled me. Everything else looks like crap.

      • Katherine McChesney

        I agree. I have no television so I rely on the internet for all my news and entertainment. Have you viewed “Foyle’s War”?

        • Lewis33

          Yes it was good. All of the masterpiece’s are worth a watch (Inspector Lewis is favorite.) If you haven’t yet, check out the Aussie shows like Underbelly, Outrageous Fortune (NZ),Top of the Lake and Killing Time. All outstanding.

        • LeGrandDerangement

          Inspector Morse is good. I tried watched Little Britain and was embarrassed, it was so bad.

    • LeGrandDerangement

      Or films about drunken, slutty 20-somethings. So much for their “research.”

  • WR_the_realist

    Why do they assume that it’s mostly Democrats who listen to classical music? Classical music is sexist and racist. Only evil white conservatives listen to it.

  • I have to wonder why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to more advertising. Advertising is a large part of why we don’t watch broadcast TV and don’t have cable. We only use it for watching movies on DVD; this way we aren’t bombarded with drivel about which toothpaste is better or what laundry detergent to use.