The Spam Holiday Continues—But What About Direct Mail?

Sure, we all know that with the threats it poses, the way it slows down networks and the scams that are often involved, spam is, if not entirely evil, at least heavily shadowed by the Dark Side. We also know that thanks to the stand-up folks at two major ISPs, we are enjoying a pretty profound break in the amount of spam being crammed into our inboxes. Where my Gmail spam filters used to catch over 100 unwanted emails a day, that number is now down to a dozen or so. That is pretty dramatic and thinking about it begs the question: Should the same thing be done with snail-mail and phone solicitation?

Mailman Steve, a Human Spam Filter

The question arises because of a story that came over the transom today. Steve Padgett was a mail carrier living in Raleigh, North Carolina. For a number of health-related reasons, the 58-year old Padgett could not keep up with the demands of the job and so cut corners by not sorting or delivering third-class mail. In fact, postal inspectors found junk mail piled up in Padgett's garage and buried in his yard that dated back to 1999. Talk about a break from junk mail! His punishment was 3 years of probation, a $3,000 fine and 500 hours of community service. The thing that sticks out, though, is a comment on the story. The person writes:

“He has to do community service? Wasn't burying the junk mail a community service in it's self?”

Junk Mail Needs No Filter—Or Does It?

There are those who would disagree, and the most vocal disagreement can be heard in the halls of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). The DMA bills itself as the leading global trade association of business and nonprofit organizations using and supporting multichannel direct marketing tools and techniques. According to the organization:

In 2007, marketers - commercial and nonprofit - spent $173.2 billion on direct marketing in the United States. Measured against total US sales, these advertising expenditures generated $2.025 trillion in incremental sales. In 2007, direct marketing accounted for 10.2 percent of total US GDP. There are 1.6 million direct marketing employees today in the US alone, and their collective sales efforts directly support 8.9 million jobs.

These are pretty big numbers for a product that folks would bury and then call the act a community service, numbers big enough to say that direct marketing is here to stay. That said, direct mail does get results if you do it right. It is also, however, very annoying to most consumers who are forced to dig it out of their mailboxes, sift through it to get to the “real” mail and are then likely to throw it away without even reading it.

These are folks who don't want it and feel that the junk mail is an intrusion into their lives. They are the sort of folks that contact organizations like Private Citizen, which is dedicated to eliminating junk mail and telemarketing calls from the lives of its members. That is not to say that the DMA does not have its own regulatory environment with opt-out programs that consumers can use to get off the mailing lists, but groups like Private Citizen claim those measures are ineffective. Others, however, oppose it for far different reasons.

Direct Mail is Just Not Green

Direct mail is the target of the environmental movement as well. According to, the basic facts regarding direct mail are:

  • The majority of household waste consists of unsolicited mail.

  • 100 million trees are ground up each year for unsolicited mail.

  • It wastes 28 billion gallons of water for paper processing each year.

  • More than half of unsolicited mail is discarded unread or unopened; the response rate is less than 2%.

  • The result is more than 4 million tons of paper waste each year.

  • It is difficult to recycle, as the inks have high concentrations of heavy metals.

  • $320 million of local taxes are used to dispose of unsolicited mail each year.

  • It costs $550 million yearly to transport junk mail.

  • Scarce landfill space disfigures rural areas and pollutes ground water.

  • We each get about 40 pounds of junk mail a year, more than a tree's worth per family!

In response to this, the DMA has created its Green 15 Toolkit, to help its members work in a more environment-sensitive fashion. In the introduction to its toolkit, the organization states, “DMA recognizes that making environmentally responsible decisions is increasingly important from a social, economic, and ethical perspective. Legal concerns are present as well. Policymakers are considering proposals that would regulate direct marketing, and direct mail in particular, with some advocates citing environmental concerns in their support for such regulation.” All things considered, it seems pretty obvious that the DMA is far more worried about business than it is about the ecosystem.

Why not? The DMA doesn't serve the environmental movement any more than it serves the needs of privacy advocates. It serves an industry that—if you take their numbers at face value—supports 10.5 million jobs here in the US. That is a pretty big constituency. Still, on the other hand, there has to be a better way of doing things.

The Bottom Line

The major problem with direct mail is the way these companies deliver the junk. They send it to everyone and hope for a response. Occasionally they get one, but the junk mail is usually thrown out (or buried in the case of Mailman Steve). Eliminate this, and most of the problem vanishes.

People respond best to mail that interests them. If you just bought a computer, for example, it would not be unreasonable for the dealer to send you mail regarding other products related to your purchase; or if you are signed up for a supermarket discount card it would be logical to expect mail from that supermarket. There is nothing wrong with this kind of direct mail since it is predicated on an existing relationship rather than a simple blanketing of an area.

We can only hope that sensible regulation will be imposed on the direct mail industry, whether they want it or not, to achieve some balance between the marketers and the people they are reaching. Remember, annoyed consumers tend away from buying goods and services from the companies that annoy them, and this most-intrusive form of advertising is, for many, quite annoying.