OfficeMax's 'Dead Daughter' Gaffe Torpedoes Big Data


Thanks to OfficeMax, Big Data marketing just got another black eye. And some privacy experts think this one, piled on top of data breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus, may be enough to incite widespread consumer pushback against data collection -- particularly by retailers.

The story started last week when Mike Seay, a grieving dad in Lindenhurst, Ill., got junk mail from OfficeMax addressed to "Mike Seay, Daughter Killed In Car Crash, or Current Business." Seay, whose 17-year-old daughter died in a wreck last year, was disturbed  enough to speak with news organizations, including the NBC affiliate in Chicago and the Los Angeles Times.

The blunder “exemplifies very efficiently all the troubling things about data-driven  marketing,” Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington and faculty director of its Tech Policy Lab, tells Marketing Daily.

“It’s inscrutable. Why does an office supply store have information about someone’s dead kid? And in such granularity --  not just that the child is dead, but even her gender and precisely how she died? It just goes to show how promiscuous this ecosystem is.”

And given all the interest in privacy and retailer carelessness raised by recent breaches at such stores as Target and Neiman Marcus, including Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Senate inquiries, “this could be the tipping point,” he says. “In the same way that whale-hunting activists didn’t gain traction until they caught whale songs on tape, this may well be the incident that humanizes privacy concerns.”

Neither OfficeMax or Office Depot, which acquired OfficeMax last year, responded to Marketing Daily. But in statements to other news outlets, it blamed the gaffe on a mailing list rented from a third-party providers.

“Without all the facts, it’s hard to know exactly what the mistake was,” adds Trevor Hughes, president and CEO of IAPP, the world’s largest privacy organization, based in Portsmouth, N.H. Theoretically, he tells Marketing Daily, it might be that someone in CRM was trying to be sensitive, for example, “making sure the family didn't get a back-to-school catalog.”

But while the sloppiness of such a mailing will create “brand challenges and bad PR cycles for OfficeMax, the bigger issue is how consumer concerns about privacy are changing, and brands need to be incredibly aware of how they are handling data. There are things that may be legal but are still incredibly stupid from a brand point of view.”

He too is surprised that, amid the fast-growing concern, there hasn’t yet been a “trigger for broad consumer anger,” he says. The NSA scandal hasn't sparked it, nor has the Target breach, which exposed some quarter of all Americans.

“But marketers need to pay attention to death of a thousand cuts,” he says. “Making mistakes on privacy is going to damage your brand every time.”
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7 comments about "OfficeMax's 'Dead Daughter' Gaffe Torpedoes Big Data".
  1. Mike Anderson from CSS , January 21, 2014 at 9:32 a.m.
    You used a photograph of an Office Depot store front, in a story about Office Max. That should be corrected immediately.
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , January 21, 2014 at 9:32 a.m.
    If the customer needs the item for the right price shown properly, it doesn't need to be personalized at all. That is only one aspect of how they bought a bridge.
  3. Sarah Mahoney from self employed , January 21, 2014 at 10:37 a.m.
    Thanks Mike, but it's the same company. Office Depot completed the merger with OfficeMax back in November.
  4. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media , January 21, 2014 at 5:18 p.m.
    And people are all up in arms about the NSA knowing a bunch of metadata about phone numbers. Hah! What marketers know about us is much more granular, much more intrusive and much more particular to us as individuals. Marketers represent a much greater threat to privacy than does the government.
  5. Arve Peder Øverland from ID.mngmnt , January 22, 2014 at 8:41 a.m.
    I feel for the grieving family, but let's not confuse Big Data with Big Stupidity. The data from which this incident occurred exists regardless and one can argue that open data sources are better for democracy than closed data sources available only to a few. The question is rather what is fair or ethical use of open data: Analyzing data to reduce decease? Analyze data to win an election? Analyze data to sell more copy paper? But that is another discussion. Here we most likely are looking at a list selling company (they have been around way before Big Data came to be a catch phrase) that in the interest of removing this family from certain mailings tagged the data file wrong and what was intended as a filter became part of the title line. That does not excuse the mistake, but explains it. If we dismiss filtering an audience to make it more targeted by the use of data - and everything is data - then this publication might as well shut down because there would be no media industry. — and then this grieving family might be bombarded with back-to-school catalogs — and that is not good either.
  6. Nate Carter from eEffective , January 22, 2014 at 10:25 a.m.
    Marla that is an interesting claim but not one which is supported with facts. Unlike the NSA, marketers cannot turn on your computer camera while disabling the light alerting you it is on. Macy's is not plugged into internet backbone cables and monitoring all traffic, both foreign and domestic coming through cables that connect data centers. The truth is most digital marketing is still heavily reliant upon the cookie. A piece of code easily removed from your browsers cache. Other pieces of data, such as that used in this case, can be gleaned from local newspapers and CRM databases. So, the comparison is rather inaccurate. That said, this is a case of data marketing malfeasance.
  7. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media , January 22, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.
    Nate, spoken like a marketer. Frankly, I find it disturbing to look at some item online (shoes, clothing, whatever) and then to have that very same thing follow me around wherever I go online to whichever website I'm on. Slate, I'm looking at you. The NSA gathers metadata on phone calls. I'm no fan of Big Government, having been a college radical in the olden days. But this carrying on today about what the NSA does is fear-mongering at its finest.