Famous Last Words: The Disturbing Blunders of Data
Many years ago, a giant USPS truck backed up to a house in Greenwich, Conn. and dumped 14,000 identical mailings onto the front lawn. The offer: membership in The Beginning Reader's Club—the Dr. Seuss books by mail.
The beleaguered homeowner told the local newspaper he was very surprised, especially because he and his wife had no kids.
The cause of the error: The printing press of a giant mailing house got stuck on repeat and nobody noticed. And the Post Office wasn't about to alert the mailer Grolier Enterprises and lose all that gorgeous postage revenue.
A Mother's Distress
Back in the late '80s—when Peggy and I were producing the WHO'S MAILING WHAT! newsletter out of our house in Stamford, Conn., my next door neighbor, Lauren, received a mailing from Planned Parenthood with the following headline in the brochure:
Do you want people like these in charge of YOUR reproductive decisions?
Lauren was 13 years old.
How could this have happened? Lauren's mother wanted to know.
I chased down the origin and discovered Lauren's grandmother had once sent the little girl flowers on her birthday. The mail order merchants—Calyx and Corolla—added Lauren's name to its house database and began renting her name out to anyone.
Back in January 2014, the Seay family was reminded of a horrible tragedy, all because of a bungle with data.
When Mike Seay arrived home earlier this month and found his wife in the kitchen crying, he braced himself. The couple was still devastated by their daughter's death in a car accident last February, and seeing his wife Shannon distraught, he prepared for the worst.
Mrs. Seay showed him a mailing sent by OfficeMax Inc. Below his name was printed "Daughter Killed In Car Crash." —Joel Schectman, The Wall Street Journal
How does such a horrific detail land on a junk mail envelope? Most likely from a customer service representative who collects information during a sale for the store's use, according to an executive who knows the data-collection industry. Details are electronically passed from company to company, and finally to a printer.