This issue will hit you where you live
The idea surfaced a year ago at a cocktail party: What if you opened your mailbox to find a national magazine with your name on the cover and the headline “They Know Where You Live!” -- under an aerial photo of your house? And what if, when you turned the page, the editor’s note and the advertisements included details about your neighbors?
It was too sexy a concept for Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason magazine, to pass up. So, equipped with subscriber names and addresses, free Internet downloads and some fancy printing technology, Gillespie’s staff and a team of direct-marketing experts produced 40,000 unique copies of the L.A.-based Libertarian magazine -- shocking and delighting readers with personalized June issues that were sent out last week.
The cover photos are framed as if viewed through a telescope, and they reveal local landmarks -- schools, post offices, football stadiums.
“It’s a little creepy,” says hypnotherapist Lon Waford, whose copy featured his office building in downtown Pocatello, Idaho. “They’ve circled in red exactly where my building is.”
On the back cover, an ad for the civil liberties law firm Institute of Justice tells readers how many homes and businesses in their state have been condemned in the last five years. Inside, an ad for the Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to reform marijuana laws, tells readers how their congressional representative voted on medical marijuana legislation.
“All of us have read ‘1984,’ ” says Waford. “The possibilities of ‘1984' are more real than ever.”
Reason’s goal was to drive home the fact that privacy, as most people view it, is an outdated concept and that too much of it can actually inhibit freedom.
“It’s part of our mission of communicating sort of a contrarian point of view on this topic,” says publisher Mike Alissi.
Yes, Internet search engines can use your phone number to map a path to your door, and grocery store chains have become experts in your buying habits thanks to those handy membership cards. But, as Reason writer Declan McCullagh explains in the cover story, the “databasification of America” also has great benefits.
“Why does so much information exist?” Gillespie asks. “The basic answer is that it facilitates, hugely, any number of commercial transactions. Most people voluntarily give up personal information about themselves because they know in return what you get is better services, cheaper prices and more customized products.”
The customization of the magazine was a nifty experiment and a great promotional opportunity for everyone involved, but it was a logistical nightmare. A team of a dozen people in six states, from Connecticut to Arkansas to California, spent several months collating data and publishing test copies before realizing the final product.
“I certainly hope we never do it again,” says Gillespie. “It was a very difficult task of orchestration. None of the main people involved were in the same time zone, much less the same office."The first step was compiling information. Led by San Bernardino direct-marketing firm Entremedia, the team downloaded maps and free satellite photos of each subscriber’s mailing address -- courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey and Microsoft’s TerraServer.com. (Later, higher-quality images were donated by AirPhotoUSA.)
Then hundreds of details on each subscriber’s neighborhood -- from the number of children living with their grandparents to the percentage of neighbors with college degrees -- were pulled off the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, factfinder.census.gov.
And that was just the free stuff available to anyone with Internet access. With a little bit of money, the issue could have included much more, from a reader’s mortgage payment to his or her favorite brand of deodorant, “but that would start to look kind of scary on the cover,” says Entremedia President Rodger Cosgrove.
From San Bernardino, Cosgrove and his staff spent a week creating a computer file for each personalized cover and stored everything on two hard drives. Then they drove those hard drives to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where all the data were merged and downloaded onto the school’s Xeikon DCP 50D digital web press, a $235,000 machine that can mass-produce unique color copies.
“On one level, an intelligent high school student could acquire these images and juxtapose them with one another,” says Cosgrove. “The trick is writing software to do it tens of thousands of times and have a press that’s capable of doing it at commercial speeds.”
About four days later, the covers were shipped to Little Rock, Ark., where the rest of the magazine was printed, bound and shipped to subscribers.
So far, the response from readers has been mixed.
One subscriber, a former Reason writer, said the mail clerks wanted to keep his copy because their post office was featured on the cover. Others were “freaked out” by such a sensational use of personal information, says Gillespie.
“What it really illustrates,” he says, “is what’s out there, what we can just pull off the Web for free, and how we’re kind of ambivalent about it all.”