Mike Seay is used to junk mail and received solicitations from OfficeMax for years. But the discount offering Seay received in late January stood out.  It was addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” Seay’s daughter Ashley had, in fact, died in a car accident in February 2013. And OfficeMax knew.

Seay mentioned that he last visited OfficeMax for paper, but he did not discuss his personal life at the store. He was understandably surprised by the mail.  “Why do they have that?” Seay questioned. “What do they need that for? How she died, when she died? It’s not really personal, but looking at them, it is. That’s not something they would ever need.”

Seay called OfficeMax, and a call center manager refused to believe him. Another spokeswoman was equally skeptical until she received a photo of the envelope. OfficeMax’s official statement said the mailing “is a result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider” and offered its apologies to Seay. The company was still gathering information about what had happened.

Big Data is largely seen as the culprit. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware that mass amounts of personal data are accrued though information gathering. While this instance is not as jarring as some recent NSA headlines, it  adds to the debate about privacy on an individual level.

Consumer information is collected based on the daily decisions buyers make. This information is available to the marketer, but also designed to provide targeted discounts and personalized services to consumers.  Information as grim as your child’s death can be valuable to a marketer. Here, some argue that the problem is not the existence of the data — it was public, legally obtained information — it is how the data was used. OfficeMax is not the sort of company that can benefit from this loss. But then again, which companies should benefit? Consumers are realizing the presence of vulnerability-based marketing. Demand for government data collection reform is growing and private data collection  may follow.

The company has not personally apologized to his family. Seay has said that he is not interested in pursing litigation against OfficeMax. However, his wife opened the letter, and the couple is still grieving.  He wants an apology from the company’s chief executive, and he also wants to know how OfficeMax got the information. He’s not alone.

Amanda Nguyen

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