You Are What You Own

Oct 2, 2002 at 12:00 am
Question: Is the Nose an Urban Up and Comer? That is, do we fit the demographic of middle-income, 18- to 39-year-old, single-member-household types who use home PCs for online chat and watch "The Late Show With David Letterman"? Or is the Nose part of the Bohemian Mix, 25- to 44-year-olds who shop at the Gap, read Elle, and have rollover IRAs? Maybe we are the part of the Mid City Mix that watches" Nightline," shops at T.J. Maxx, and drinks Pepsi Free. Ever since we stumbled across a marketing Web site that conveniently categorizes people into a number of cutesy classifications according to ZIP code, we have been trying to figure out just what pigeonhole we fit in the minds of marketeers.

The You Are Where You Live Web site is a "lifestyle segmentation system" called Prizm created by San Diego-based marketing firm Claritas. (According to the company's Web site, its ambitious corporate vision is "to have every business rely on Claritas information.") Using census data, consumer profiles (this is where your supermarket savings-card data is used), and demographic information, Claritas has classified U.S. neighborhoods into 62 categories. Type your ZIP code into the You Are Where You Live search engine and you'll receive anywhere from three to five population "clusters" that Claritas feels dominate your neighborhood. These clusters have catchy names and descriptions such as Blue Chip Blues (upscale blue-collar families who drink Coke and belong to religious clubs) and Family Scramble (low-income Hispanic families who use home hair-coloring kits and read Parenting).

"At the heart of the Prizm, system is the adage 'birds of a feather flock together,'" says Claritas spokesman Steven Moore (in all news stories on Claritas the Nose has read, a company exec has dropped that phrase). "It's based on the premise that people naturally will gravitate toward living around people who are like them. ... People don't want to be categorized but, in and of themselves, they categorize themselves in where they live and what they do. When you live in a certain neighborhood, you're classified. When you buy certain products and dress a certain way, you're classified. All Prizm does is mirror the behavior of the population. It provides a system to determine that classification."

Since discovering Prizm, the Nose has stopped visiting such entertaining Web sites as My Porn Name and has spent hours typing local ZIP codes into the search engine to see how the California marketing firm is portraying Baltimoreans to the world. So far, we've found the following:

If you live in Charles Village, you are likely to take vitamins and shop at the Gap, according to Prizm. You might also be a low-income family with a high number of children who has call blocking and shops at Lady Foot Locker. Or you may be an Urban Up and Comer who chats online and eats at restaurants with dessert menus.

If you live in Mount Vernon, you likely use olive oil and attend the theater; or you may be part of the Struggling Urban Mix who reads the cable guide and attends movies two to three times a month.

If you live in the 21217 ZIP code, you're either a bohemian single who likes to watch "Face the Nation" and reads Elle or you're part of Prizm's Mid City Mix. You may also be lumped into a group called Difficult Times, which consists of very low-income families who dine at fast-food chicken restaurants and watch "Family Matters" -- in syndication, not first run.

According to Moore, the Prizm system is being used by restaurants, retail stores, and even churches who want to determine where their best customers are located--for example, if Wal-Mart wants to open a new store, it could use Prizm (albeit a more sophisticated version than the freebie one offered on the Web) to find the highest concentration of Kathy Lee Gifford-loving, Diet Coke-drinking, discount-shopping consumers in your area; likewise, churches use the system to target areas where they are most likely to find the highest number of potential converts. Moore says that the system is so successful that even Fortune 500 companies use it to pinpoint customers and identify market demographics.

Popular though it may be, he acknowledges, it has also been somewhat "controversial."

"Some people look at the system and say, 'This is just pigeonholing people, stereotyping them,'" Moore says. "But the system is not stereotyping -- the system is just the messenger. The system is taking the hard data that people provide and presenting it ... When a person rails against what this system does, in essence, that person could just as well be railing at themselves."

As for us, we're not railing against ourselves. We're still trying to figure out where we fit into the Claritas vision of the world. We're definitely not Shotguns and Pickups or Back Country Folks (yes, these are real Prizm categories), nor are we Urban Gold Coast or Young Literati. The closest we could come to finding ourselves in the system is somewhere between Boomtown Singles (middle-income young singles who watch "X-Files" and have a safe-deposit box), Single City Blues (ethnically mixed urban singles who buy smoke detectors and watch the movie channels on TV), and Bohemian Mix. So we'd like to suggest a new category for Claritas that we think ought to be added to the Prizm system: Urban Shotgun Gold Coast Bohemian Literati Underachieving Feather-Flocking Fifth Estate Scramble Mix.