Junk mail: why we need more of it

Time was when the only place to put direct mail was in the bin. Not any more. By Adrian Turpin
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In 1991 a man bought rechargeable batteries by mail-order from an advert in the Daily Telegraph, and was sent details of an inflatable sheep called Luv Ewe. Then there was the firm of timber merchants that in 1993 sent out a picture of a young woman wearing a swimsuit and high heels, standing on a stack of wood. "Attention all builders," the accompanying copy read. "If you're partial to a good lay, then use Austin quality flooring." And what about the 12-year-old girl who received details about a hotel for sado-masochists?

If you relish these sorts of tales - all genuine cases taken from Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) records - then savour them now: because the days of the junk-mail scare story may well be numbered.

In 1994, just 24 complaints about direct mail (as the marketing industry prefers to call it) were upheld by the ASA, compared with 48 in 1993, despite the fact that the number of letters direct-mailed to people's homes increased from 1.8 billion to two billion over the same period. Junk mail (whisper it) is becoming respectable.

This is a shocking thing to write, because getting hot under the collar about junk mail is a national sport. No matter that the average Briton is sent just 47 pieces of it a year, compared to 127 in Switzerland. No matter than when it comes to the quantity of direct mail received we languish near the bottom of the European league table, ninth out of 13. And never mind that reputable "blue-chip" companies such as Heinz, Spillers, Tesco and Bupa have begun to put huge amounts of faith, and money, into this marketing medium. The British public remains convinced that it can't open its front door for the unbidden outpourings of timeshare salesmen and double-glazers.

"How do I account for this attitude?" asks one leading direct-marketer. "Let's just say that dinosaurs always react that way to change."

Unpalatable as it must be to the Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells, the recipients of junk mail - 56 per cent of us each week - have never had it so good. "Undoubtedly direct mailers have cleaned up their acts," says Dominic Mills, editor of the advertising trade magazine Campaign. "There will always be mailshots that miss the people they're aimed at, like the letter addressed to Mum which arrives shortly after she's died. But these things happen far less often now."

A lot of this is down to self-regulation, which has steadily tightened over the past five years. Take the thorny issue of timeshare mail: in 1990, the list-brokers (firms that sell lists of potential customers to direct marketers) agreed not to supply foreign companies - which aren't subject to British law - unless they could prove that what they were mailing was above board. In 1992, a single industry body, the Direct Marketing Association, was formed, ironing out many regulatory anomalies. And, importantly, since 1993, companies have been unable to get a Mailsort contract from the Royal Mail unless they adhere to the British advertising industry code of practice. Without such contracts, big mail shots aren't commercially viable. "If a company's Mailsort contract is removed," says Grahame Fowler of the ASA, "we can almost put that company out of business." The message is clear: Arthur Daleys need not apply.

But has junk mail merely stopped being an obvious nuisance, and become a more insidious one?

New technology means that it is increasingly easy for companies to target individuals accurately. A two-page advert in last week's issue of Campaign for ICD, one of Britain's largest list-brokers, makes queasy reading for the paranoid. "The list is endless," it boasts, detailing thousands of different lists of target consumers. For the right money, ICD will rent you a list of 59,474 women who've had problems with tight shoes, 75,311 haemorrhoid sufferers or 30,561 people who watch Tomorrow's World.

Before anyone starts invoking Big Brother, however, note that these kinds of lists are largely compiled from "lifestyle" questionnaires, which are filled in voluntarily. Members of more than 12 million households have completed them. If your name is on the list of piles-sufferers, the chances are you have either already bought medicine by mail order or admitted to the ailment in the hope of winning an all-expenses paid trip to the Caribbean.

"The public knows exactly what the data is going to be used for," says Colin Fricker of the Direct Marketing Association. "It's not a question of people burrowing in dustbins."

Remember too, that the more information they have on you, the more likely you are to receive mail that's relevant and not just irritating. And if people don't like what they are receiving, they can write to the Mailing Preference Service and ask to have their names taken off lists, something that 400,000 people have already done. "In what other form of advertising," asks Fricker, "do you get a chance to say `Sorry, I don't want to receive it?' "

So could 1995 be the year we learned to like our junk mail? Thanks to the multinationals that we know and love, it could well be. Big companies are finding it cost-effective to contact their customers in this way. Heinz - which earmarked pounds 12m for direct mail initiatives last year - is about to send out the third version of the personalised Heinz magazine. Supermarket "loyalty" cards like the Tesco club card will lead to a flurry of precisely targeted offers through your letterbox. And when companies get it right, it works. When Pedigree, who make Sheba cat food, sent a Valentine's Day card to owners on behalf of their cats, they received hundreds of phone calls thanking them.

"The area that is most important now is loyalty," says Hugh Eaton, account director at the ad agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, which runs campaigns for Tango and the AA. "Before, direct mailing was just a way of getting an ad in front of you. Now, it's a way of talking to people personally. In the future people will get less mail from people they don't know, and more from people they do. And that's a good thing for everybody." Unless, of course, you happen to sell inflatable sheep.