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.
How to Identify an Old-Time Direct Marketer
I once shared a client with Washington State consultant Robert Coates. At one point he said to me, "I'll bet I could tell if you are true direct marketer."
"Okay," I replied. "How?"
"If I handed you a printed database of consumer names and addresses, I'll bet you would stop what you were doing and start reading the list."
I thought for a moment and said, "Yeah, that's what I do. I can't help it."
To me, something magical exists in a list—people I've never met whom I can contact and possibly change their lives for the better.
This thinking can then stretch into the direct mail package itself. Here's how freelancer Malcolm Decker writes a sales letter:
I develop as clear a profile of my prospect as the available research offers and then try to match it up with someone I know and "put him in a chair" across from me. Then I write to him more or less conversationally.
My Opinion ...
Every name in a database—consumer or in the business arena—is a real living person. I am an intruder in the privacy of their homes or offices. This is an honor, a sacred trust and a responsibility. Yes, I can change that person's life for the better. I can make an offer that is accepted, rejected or ignored, which is okay.
However, I can also hurt that person, just as the data goons at Office-Max did to the Seay family. That is not okay.
People as Commodities
The Big Data mongers are in charge. They're in the business of manipulating bits and bytes of electricity. The human element is gone. Get with it, old geezer.
The Direct Marketing Association has come up the catchphrase "Data-Driven Marketing." The mantra: Let's grab all the data we can, sell it and get rich. If leaks occur, it goes with the territory. I disagree. Direct marketing is intimate advertising, Stan Rapp said years ago.
Otherwise, we should all go work for BP or General Motors, who have shown the marketplace they don't give a damn.
Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is "Write Everything Right!" Visit him at dennyhatch.com or contact him at email@example.com.