Could a recent marketing error by OfficeMax impact the entire data-driven marketing industry?

The company sent a mailer addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash or Current Business.” Seay’s 17-year-old daughter Ashley was killed in a car accident last year. Seay asked his local news outlet, NBC 5, “Why would they [Office Max] have that type of information? Why would they need that? What purpose does it serve anybody to know that? And how much other types of other information do they have if they have that on me, or anyone else? And how do they use that, what do they use that for?” Seay’s interview – and the image of the mailer – went viral.

In spin control, OfficeMax issued a statement that it was not trying to market its products to a targeted group (i.e., parents of children killed in auto accidents). Instead, the company explained that it requested a “Businesses, Small Offices and Home Offices” mailing list – without personal qualifiers – from a third-party data broker. OfficeMax declined to name the broker.

Even taking OfficeMax’s statement at face value, opponents of data marketers claimed that the mailer made it appear that brokers are compiling such unpleasant lists. Proponents of reining in the data-driven marketing seized upon the mailer as evidence of the dangers of the industry and called for legislation.

The Federal Trade Commission is currently conducting an investigation of data brokers and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) recently released a report on the data broker industry. At a hearing to discuss his findings, Sen. Rockefeller specifically cited the creation of categories such as “Tough Start: Young Single Parents” as “tailor made to businesses that seek to take advantage of customers.”

Why it matters: As OfficeMax copes with the negative publicity (a spokesperson said the company has “upgraded the filters designed to flag inappropriate information” to avoid future mishaps), the data broker industry will hold its breath to see if the incident will be the tipping point for a legislative crackdown.