Better than we know ourselves?

They tugged me aside as I walked briskly through an urban mall about a decade ago looking, I guess, decisive.

These marketing researchers wanted to grill me about coolers, four or five of which were arrayed on a folding table. I was invited to pick the products up and look them over. Lift the lids.

I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about coolers, but you wouldn't have guessed it, based on those 10 minutes or so. I was asked about which brand, if any, resonated with me (it was Coleman, the camping-gear supplier of my youth). Next came a question about color preference. The rust-colored one, I can actually recall saying, would look less obtrusive in a wooded setting than the one that was stop-sign red.

That sent my interviewer's pen skittering across her clipboard.

So it was in lower-tech times. But to get a handle on consumer habits today, researchers can dip into an arsenal of advanced tools - some of which operate unseen.

"Dynamic browsers," for example, earmark areas of interest based on a person's Internet use. A marketing expert quoted in this week's lead story cites "the assumption that every site you visit says something about you."

Given what's out there, that may put us all a typo away from enrollment in the depravity-of-the-month club. (Want to surf without leaving a trail? See page 16.)

Is there a legitimate upside to letting marketers open a window on your world? Doing so could lower the irrelevance quotient of your mail. And as more firms customize and target merchandise, it could help alert you to singularly useful new products.

It all depends on how serious you are about your demand for, say, coolers in muted earth tones.

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