Nielsen is going beyond trying to track everything you watch to tracking everything you buy -- adding data from what an executive said is "virtually all" credit and debit-card purchases plus bank statements, including online bill payments and paper checks, to what it already gets from food and drugstore purchases.
Nielsen is anonymously matching all that data through an undisclosed third party to members of its TV ratings panel, an executive of the company told Advertising Age, and plans to expand such matching to online and other measurement services. Linking TV audiences to their purchases has been available to packaged-goods marketers for a few years through Nielsen Catalina Solutions and elsewhere based on data from retailer loyalty programs. But Nielsen's broader data set opens the capability to telecom, restaurant, travel, entertainment, financial services and virtually all retail advertisers.
That represents 37 billion transactions, $4 trillion in sales and $10 billion in ad spending annually, said Nada Bradbury, senior VP-global product leader of Nielsen Buyer Insights, in a presentation Tuesday at the Advertising Research Foundation Re:think 2013 Conference in New York.
"Basically, anything you buy, we now see," Ms. Bradbury said from the dais.
In an interview later, Ms. Bradbury said Nielsen only sees what people buy on an aggregated level and, at least for now, only when they opt in as members of Nielsen's National People Meter TV ratings panel. Nielsen never actually sees any individual's purchases, she said.
A Nielsen spokeswoman said the company is similarly matching the transaction data with its online measurement panel and is looking at ways to expand use to other measurement services "in compliance with consumer-privacy guidelines."
"Nielsen has an exclusive alliance that provides near-census-level coverage of credit based insights," she said in an e-mail. "No other product or offering in the market currently offers these insights with such accuracy and depth."
The credit, debit and bank-statement data doesn't include item-level data -- for example what specific items people buy at Victoria's Secret or the particular movie they buy tickets for -- just the seller's name, dollar amounts and times of the transactions.
But that still opens a world of targeting possibilities. CBS Chief Research Officer David Poltrack used the Nielsen Buyer Insights data to expand his long-running argument that age and sex demographics are increasingly useless and that the purchase habits of audiences should carry more weight.
The CBS series "Elementary" has a 2.9 Nielsen rating in the age 18-49 demo but a 7.3 rating among heavy movie spenders, he said in his presentation to the ARF conference. A different, unnamed show with a 3.6 rating for the demo has only a 2.8 rating with heavy movie spenders, he said.
"Blue Bloods" on CBS has a 1.9 rating for the 18-49 demo but a 6.8 rating for casual-dining buyers, he continued. He didn't just tout CBS, adding that ABC's "Modern Family" has a 5.2 rating in the 18-49 demo but a higher 7.4 rating among casual-dining buyers.
While there's no guarantee that advertisers will change decades-old practice and shift to purchase-based program ratings, Mr. Poltrack said he already sees traditional targets losing relevance. The prized 18-49 group will fall to 54% of the U.S. TV audience for this upcoming TV season, he said, down from 56% last year and continuing a long-term decline.
Packaged-goods marketers that have had more time to use purchase-based targeting are warming to it, Mr. Poltrack said, noting that Nielsen Catalina Solutions has done 1,000 projects connecting purchase behavior to TV or online audiences and expects to nearly double such project volume this year, with ad-targeting projects leading that growth.