Who wants to be in the “McMansion and minivans” category?

Big data makes it possible to slice up Americans into all sorts of consumer categories like “McMansions and minivans.” However, how many would want to be in that category?

Acxiom provides “premium proprietary behavioral insights” that “number in the thousands and cover consumer interests ranging from brand and channel affinities to product usage and purchase timing.” In other words, Acxiom creates profiles, or digital dossiers, about millions of people, based on the 1,500 points of data about them it claims to have. These data might include your education level; how many children you have; the type of car you drive; your stock portfolio; your recent purchases; and your race, age, and education level. These data are combined across sources—for instance, magazine subscriber lists and public records of home ownership—to determine whether you fit into a number of predefined categories such as “McMansions and Minivans” or “adult with wealthy parent.” Acxiom is then able to sell these consumer profiles to its customers, who include twelve of the top fifteen credit card issuers, seven of the top ten retail banks, eight of the top ten telecom/media companies, and nine of the top ten property and casualty insurers.

Acxiom may be one of the largest data brokers, but it represents a dramatic shift in the way that personal information is handled online. The movement toward “Big Data,” which uses computational techniques to find social insights in very large groupings of data, is rapidly transforming industries from health care to electoral politics. Big Data has many well-known social uses, for example by the police and by managers aiming to increase productivity. But it also poses new challenges to privacy on an unprecedented level and scale. Big Data is made up of “little data,” and these little data may be deeply personal.

This is not new though the amount of data advertisers and others have – which is often given voluntarily on the Internet – may have increased in recent years. What might be more interesting, given that this is happening, is then to present Americans with the categories they are in and see how they react. Neither McManions or minivans have very good reputations. McMansions are seen as ugly houses owned by people who just want to make a splash, not own a quality house or participate in a close-knit community. Minivans signify suburban parent schlepping kids from place to place. Think the Toyota commercials from a few years back that tried to make owning a minivan cool. Put together these two functional objects that also serve as status markers and I suspect many people would not want to identify themselves as being in such an uncool group. Yet, there are plenty of people in such a group. Drive through any well-to-do suburb and both the homes and the parking lots (lots of Toyota and Honda minivans as well as a range of upscale SUVs – does this category include “McMansions and SUVs”?) reveal a certain lifestyle built around home, kids, school, and safety. It may be derided by outsiders and the people on the inside might not self-identify as such (and they might object to being lumped in a group – we Americans are individuals after all), but these are fairly popular choices to which marketers and businesses can then cater.

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