OfficeMax's 'Dead Daughter' Gaffe Torpedoes Big Data
by Sarah Mahoney, Jan 20, 2014, 11:16 PM
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.”