For as long as any of us can remember, direct mail has been under attack for what many see as violations of privacy. We’ve become notorious for what the public feels we can find out just by pressing a few computer keys.
In recent years, this feeling has increased substantially. The rise of communication vehicles-telemarketing, indiscriminate faxing and e-mail practices-has fueled public annoyance.
Companies’ defenses against public outcries have for the most part been ineffectual, stemming primarily from that same lack of ethical discrimination that put them in danger in the first place: Usually, the alleged perps didn’t consider they were doing something unethical, or they had lost control (as in the case of credit companies) of the mechanisms of maintaining their constituents’ privacy. Technology created the speed by which people’s credit histories could be accessed en masse. Unthinking companies, not seeing the social significance of the dissemination of this data, handled the technology carelessly, then headed for the nearest dugout when the press picked up the news.
But we in the business feel like the donkey about to have the tail pinned. We’ve got to the point of smiling impotently when someone says “Direct mail? You mean junk mail?” We simply don’t feel that any defense will be effective in the light of public prejudice.
And the DMA, while being enormously effective on Capitol Hill when it comes to inhibiting postal increases and combating prejudicial legislative proposals, is just as helpless as any of us when it comes to bettering our public image. The best we seem able to do is retreat from trench to trench: admit that privacy is a real issue, assert the effectiveness of the DMA pandering list, reiterate our concerns. I’m not knocking it. But I do think there’s a better way.
Direct mail is America’s business, and it always has been.
It was bound to be from the beginning. All of direct mail’s infinite energy-the hurly-burly, the entrepreneurial talent, the desire to better oneself by starting a business no one had ever started before, advertising products never before advertised (in ways that had never been thought of before)-all of this had its start because we evolved from a frontier society that could only be nourished by transporting goods from a distant place. The post office supplied the transport, but American business supplied the goods.
So direct mail is America’s business. Everyone in DM knows it. Is there a person in our business who has not, at one time, connected the habits of our entrepreneurialism to the larger society? DM’s basic elements, so close to our own best ambitions and impulses and sometimes mirrored in our failures to live up to those ideals, is the most American of commercial enterprises.
What is amazing is that we have kept it such a secret! Our advertising is not seen as a tender of opportunities to a huge number of people; it is increasingly seen as a violation of their rights. The ambitious dynamism that governs direct mail is not perceived as a creative attempt to better our lives by improving those of our prospects and customers, it is perceived as a group of attempts to scam an unwilling public into giving up the details of their personal lives so that we can line our pockets. The most salient fact of direct mail-that there is actually so little misuse of the public trust-is never mentioned, never even by those of us who know it best.
We are, quite simply, scared. We are scared of the politicians who might find it easier to listen to the hysterical fringe of their constituencies, the people who characterize us as evil opportunists armed with sophisticated technology and an overriding lack of moral judgment. But this fringe will ultimately win unless we make our case more dramatically.
We are scared of going up the Hill and telling them who we are, because we may open the door to a discussion of what we are not. But if we can do this without sounding defensive, if we can assert the virtues of offering people the products we think they need on the basis of the products they have needed and purchased in the past, we won’t have very much that is negative to answer for.
Most of all, we are scared of what we don’t know: What will happen if we open doors we have never opened? Discuss direct mail practices and make the mystery less mysterious? Well, if we do it right-if the DMA does it right-we don’t have a heck of a lot to worry about. Because who we are is, often, the best of American commerce. And a lot of people out there will see it.
The sense that mailing lists violate our privacy is the downside of the absolute necessity for the creation of a customer list by mail. Isn’t a central axiom of business the conviction if a customer wants something, he’ll want it again?Or something just like it? The frenetic outcry about the availability of lists for rental is a reaction to some of the best instincts in American commerce. Want to get ahead? Sell something valuable.
The public’s concerns about the rise of bulk mail comes from its enormous receptivity to direct mail. No matter what party-guests say about not being direct mail customers, we know they are.
The public’s feeling that it can be scammed by mailers comes from our most valuable marketing utility: Advertising products by mail doesn’t let customers see those products up front. But if they could have seen the product up front, they wouldn’t have used the mail in the first place! They’d buy retail. So the risk of being scammed, as apprehensively as it has always been perceived, is nothing more than the downside of DM’s value. Much of the misdirected criticism of direct mail would dissipate if we could get this across.
I think it’s time for the DMA to take another tack on behalf of our industry: To mount a campaign-in print, on the air and in person on the Hill-to assert the strengths and virtues of DM. We can’t just be so frightened of what our representatives will say that our strongest argument is that we give people the chance to get off mailing lists. If they perceive, quite rightly, that having the chance to opt out is their right, they must be made to see the value of direct mail.
The times are peculiar, filled with superstition and ambivalence. We care for every animal and tree in sight, but seem unable or unwilling to stop starvation and mass slaughter around the globe. We decry the violence in our society, but the evening news shows keep their ratings up by describing the murder, rape and arson of the day. Commerce is wonderful, commerce is terrible. We want to receive offers in the mail, but we are disturbed by why we are on a mailing list. The nation hates junk mail, but it cannot comprehend that there is an organic relationship between the mail in which it is not interested and the mail to which it responds with enthusiasm. The public loves our sweepstakes, but it has a widespread feeling that they are rigged.
But there are things that bind us as a national entity, among them the opportunities America presents-the beliefs in doing it better, re-concocting our own lives in dynamic fashion, setting life goals and meeting them.
Isn’t that what direct mail has been about?