Acxiom, one of the most secretive and prolific collectors of consumer information, is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. On September 4, 2013, it plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them.
With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers.
The data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, like whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size clothing or sports products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, cholesterol-related products or charities.
Each entry comes with an icon that visitors can click to learn about the sources behind the data — whether self-reported consumer surveys, warranty registrations or public records like voter files. The program also lets people correct or suppress individual data elements, or to opt out entirely of having Acxiom collect and store marketing data about them. Visitors who log in may be surprised at the volume of information that may be available and the detailed picture it can give of their personal lives.
Even so, Aboutthedata.com is a self-serving endeavor, promoting Acxiom’s take on data-powered marketing to consumers. Although the site shows visitors a few facts that some might consider sensitive, like race and ethnicity, it initially omits intimate references — like “gambling,” “senior needs,” “smoker in the household” and “adult with wealthy parent” — that Acxiom markets to corporate clients but that might discomfit consumers if they knew they were for sale. (Acxiom said that the site includes the “core” facts it has collected about consumers, but that it might add “derived” data, like propensity for gambling, at a later date.)
This kind of anodyne presentation of data-mining, says Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, could prompt people to collude in their own surveillance by perfecting their profiles. That would improve the quality and resale value of the data for Acxiom, he says, perhaps to consumers’ detriment.