Big Brother Apparently Needs Glasses

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Periodically, I read these stories about how marketers are really Big Brother, and I wonder how much they know about me. I assume you've read the stories, too, and seen the Very Special Episodes of "Law and Order" where we learn that companies know everything about us, from how much we overspent on wine at our anniversary dinner to the sexual problems we're doing Google searches for.

In practice, I've found marketers' predictive abilities underwhelming. Between my leaving Newsweek and starting at Bloomberg View, my husband and I spent a week touring Virginia, including a stay at Colonial Williamsburg. For months after that trip, it seemed as if every other Google ad I saw was for ... Colonial Williamsburg. I mean, we liked it and everything. But frankly, one overpriced meal at the King's Arms Tavern is enough to do you for quite a while.

Yet all the rumors on the Internet whisper of more powerful marketers, ones who could tell you your shoe size, recommend the perfect cheese to serve with those grapes you just purchased and remind you that you really need to call your grandmother, because it's been 21 days. Perhaps the ads for Colonial Williamsburg were some sort of elaborate feint, the Operation Quicksilver of modern marketing. Wheels within wheels, my friend, wheels within wheels.

So it was with excitement and some trepidation that I learned of, which lets you see what marketers know about you. Here's the New York Times description of the sort of data available to the shadowy forces behind the credit card offers and catalogs piling up in your mailbox:

The data on the site, called, 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.

In the New York Times article, the site is rather too familiar with the personal details of its test subject:

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company that has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States, knows that Mr. Howe is 45, married with children, the owner of a house in the 2,500-square-foot range, and is interested, among other things, in tennis, domestic travel, cooking, crafts, sweepstakes and contests. Those intimate details, Mr. Howe says, are entirely accurate.

My heart pounding like a junior invited to senior prom, I went to the site and entered my own details. And all I can say is, the Colonial Williamsburg ads seem sophisticated in comparison. At least I actually went there.

According to, I'm between 40 and 41 years old. This would be more impressive if I hadn't given them my birthday to register. It also knows that I'm a woman. A single Italian woman whose highest level of completed education is high school. (Ethnicity, the site helpfully notes, is inferred from last name. With a name like "McArdle," you can see what an easy mistake that was to make.)

As far as is concerned, I don't own a home -- even though I had to give them an address to register. An address where my husband and I are titled on a house and a mortgage. It's also unaware that I own a car, presumably because I don't have a loan on it.

What about the economic data? believes my household income to be about half of my actual salary, possibly because we're kinda cheap. Though not quite as cheap as thinks; according to them, in the last 24 months, I've spent a total of $1,126 on online and offline purchases.

And here's what thinks I've bought:


I know a cold shiver is supposed to go up my spine at finding out someone knows I've been pricing window treatments. (Though not, contra this graphic, actually buying any.) But any icy tendrils are immediately melted by the conclusion that I've been buying art. I have no idea where the site got this idea, unless a new ice cream machine counts. And now that I mention it, how come it doesn't know I've got a new kitchen appliance? If there's one thing that the Internet ought to know about me, it's that I've always got a new kitchen appliance. Frankly, this list could practically have been assembled just knowing my age and gender.

So time to put away my panic about the Panopticon Society, at least for a while. Big Brother may be watching, but he apparently needs glasses.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Megan McArdle at