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Aimia apologizes for Aeroplan survey that ‘offended’ some customers

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TORONTO — Aeroplan parent company Aimia Inc. apologized Monday for a survey it circulated in mid-March that “offended” customers with questions on immigration and marriage, but one expert said the queries shouldn’t be much of a surprise because they pop up in plenty of other surveys.

The apology came after Lacey Willmott, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, complained to Aimia about its shopping and life habits questionnaire because she found it “problematic” when it asked her if too much immigration ‚Äúthreatens the purity of the country,‚Äù whether getting married and having children is ‚Äúthe only real way of having a family,” whether ‚Äúmen have a certain natural superiority over women, and nothing can change this” and if “the father of the family must be master in his own house.”

The last of the questions “has been asked a ton of times by a ton of different people,” including at least one other major polling and marketing firm in the country, said Laurence Ashworth, an associate marketing professor at Queen’s University.

“Just a quick search and I have seen (the questions) in published academic papers. I can’t say that about all of them, but it absolutely would not surprise me.”

He said he’s also seen survey questions elsewhere covering views around sensitive topics like abortion and self-worth.

Aimia spokesperson Christa Poole said in an emailed statement that the questions came from CROP, a Montreal-based marketing research company, which did not respond to the Canadian Press’s request for comment.

Poole said CROP “has been asking the same questions of Canadians for 30 years.”

“Multiple large Canadian organizations have used the same CROP questions and survey and taken the same approach as Aeroplan, adding their own proprietary questions to CROP’s larger annual survey,” she added.

However, she admitted, the questions had not been properly reviewed internally and “don’t meet the standards we hold ourselves to in terms of the kind of information we gather in order to provide the best program for our members.”

She said Aimia would be deleting the data it collected and had asked CROP to do the same.

Ashworth hypothesized that the data likely would have been used to figure out the nature of Aeroplan members so they can be targeted with marketing. He said making the questions more neutral would have impacted the data collected.

“If you are trying to measure a particular social value like social conservatism and you really want to get a sense of whether people possess that particular value, you are not going to be able to capture it if you ask a very toned-down question,” he said.

While his work in marketing and surveying means he’s quite used to seeing questions like the ones Willmott complained about, he said he still found the queries “out of left field” coming from a loyalty plan company.

To comply with research ethics policies across Canada, anyone collecting data through such a survey should offer forewarning about the sensitive nature of questions or about how broad the range of topics will be, he said.

Willmott said the survey did have a mention part way through about how tedious the survey is, but didn’t flag that some survey-takers might find questions to be intrusive.

She said she has studied social sciences before so she wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that Ashworth said they questions are frequently used, but said “I don’t think that means they’re not problematic.”

“Just because the market research companies have always been using this language and always been asking these questions does not make it okay,” she said.

Willmott said she spoke to Aeroplan’s vice-president of marketing, who she said apologized and told her that she was the only one to complain out of thousands who completed the survey.

While she’s happy to learn the company is deleting the data, she said some of her concerns still remain.

“If they say they are deleting the data, is there anyway they can prove that is actually happening and what is CROP, the third-party survey company they were working with, doing with the data as well?”

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