On Memorial Day, MasterCard International opened its ears to consumers.
The New York-based association launched "MasterCard Asks America," a program to find out how consumers feel about marketing practices that involve the collection, sale, and use of consumer information.
Through July 4, consumers are invited to call, write, or go on-line to tell MasterCard how they feel about such topics as direct mail and telephone credit card offers, how much businesses know about them, and the way businesses use consumer information.
"There is a strong feeling that a lot of the information comes from the credit card industry," said Charlotte Rush, MasterCard's vice president of public affairs. "That's not the case, but that's the perception, so it makes it reality.
"I think from the standpoint of how the consumers view the brand, it's important that they feel MasterCard cares about them and respects them."
MasterCard said the impetus behind the feedback initiative is a growing concern about the amount of marketing data available - from consumers' names, addresses, and phone numbers, to their product preferences and payment habits. Few businesses have stopped to ask consumers how they feel about these marketing practices, the association said.
Consumer opinion and ideas collected from MasterCard Asks America will be used to develop a consumer guide to privacy, which will be made available to any business and organization that wants to know what consumers are thinking.
"I think it's a great idea," said Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer advocacy group in Virginia. "MasterCard deserves credit for understanding that privacy is a key issue.
"Looking for consumer reaction directly is a terrific way to get accurate information," she added, compared with hiring a marketing research firm and conducting focus groups.
Also, the responses to MasterCard Asks America will be noted when MasterCard creates privacy operating principles this year.
"We looked very carefully at what other companies are doing; a number have adopted principles," Ms. Rush said. "We've never seen a situation where you throw your door open and say, tell us what's on your mind. We think it will be very interesting to see what kinds of responses we get."
Though companies like American Express, Citicorp, and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. have a privacy code, much of the credit card industry does not.
"It's important to have consistency and to demonstrate throughout to consumers that the MasterCard system is using their information quite responsibly," Ms. Rush said.
Ms. Susswein agreed there may be some benefit from the feedback program. "Consumers get to have some direct impact on MasterCard's privacy policies," she said.
For the past year, MasterCard and Visa have been addressing privacy issues. MasterCard conducted research to determine consumer reaction to how business uses information for marketing.
Consumers said they had concerns about how information is collected and used, Ms. Rush said. "They would prefer to do business with a company that involves them in the decision-making process."
To promote the program, MasterCard is running spots on 5,000 radio stations across the nation, as well as print advertisements in newspapers. In addition, video crews will travel to every region to interview people and record their views.
Ms. Rush said MasterCard will evaluate the program and might use it on other products and services as a way to collect a lot of input in the future. But, she added, it doesn't replace the marketing research the association routinely conducts.
"It's also important for consumers to feel that business does have an open-door policy and is interested in what consumers have to say," she said. "This kind of program communicates that much more successfully than classic kinds of research."