Posted by Anne Landman on May 05, 2008

Buried in junk mail...what to do?A recent blog about the pro-junk mail lobby and its front group, Mail Moves America, drew many comments. Mail Moves America is a coalition of businesses that oppose efforts to create a legislated "Do Not Mail" list to protect citizens from being showered with unwanted junk mail,Junk mail is clearly a hot topic that arouses strong emotions on all sides. As electronic mail moves closer to overtaking paper mail as the medium of choice for written communication, it is clear that the Post Office remains an essential way to communicate and transfer goods. Still, many people are overwhelmed with junk mail and have little idea how to stop it.

Could a "Do Not Mail" list have unintended consequences?

Efforts to promote a national "Do Not Mail" list were spearheaded by ForestEthics, an environmental organization working to slow destruction of the Canadian Boreal Forest. The idea instantly took hold. For beleaguered consumers, a "Do Not Mail" list certainly sounds attractive: just sign up and junk mail would magically stop. But it isn't hard to imagine that such a list could also have unintended consequences. If someone blocked mail to a rented address, then moved and failed to notify the Post Office, for example, what problems could that pose for the new occupants? Since a Do Not Mail database would by its nature be extremely fluid, who would maintain that database, and how would that maintenance be funded? Writing and passing a Do Not Mail law at the federal level could, given the powerful lobbies involved, result in pro-industry legislation filled with loopholes that would permit junk mailers to continue business as usual.

The status quo is unacceptable

While creating a Do Not Mail list could present as many problems as solutions, the current "solutions" that marketers and others point to for reducing junk mail can also be intimidating and are simply inadequate. A few blog commentators pointed to the Direct Marketing Association's "Mail Preference Service" (MPS) as a solution. In addition to being poorly promoted and unknown to most consumers, the MPS can also be intimidating to use, and is fraught with annoying obstacles. The MPS Web site tells users they have to enter a credit card number to "authenticate and validate the consumer's identity through a no-charge transaction." Placing such sensitive personal financial information on the Web is a deal-breaker for many people, particularly older consumers. If you want to avoid using the Internet, you can register with MPS through the mail, but you have to print out a registration form, fill it in, mail it to DMA and include one dollar, in the form of a check or money order only. This is another annoying obstacle, particularly for people who have to go out and purchase a money order. And why should anyone have to pay to stop getting something they didn't want in the first place? To stop getting catalogs, MPS requires that you enter the exact name of every single catalog you want to stop receiving. Who keeps unwanted catalogs around, much less lists of them? MPS does not appear to cover nonprofit mailings, so to get names off nonprofit mailing lists, consumers have to contact each individual nonprofit by calling long distance to non-toll-free numbers, or sending first-class letters or postcards -- all at one's own expense. Other Web sites that offer to reduce junk mail tell the user to enter the customer number from each unwanted catalog's mailing label -- which again, people are unlikely to keep. Still other sites want $50 or more for their services.

Reducing junk mail clearly requires a substantial investment of effort, planning, time and money. DMA's "Mail Preference Service," and other services, just don't seem like adequate solutions to the problem.

Corporate practices contribute to the junk mail problem

At least some of the junk mail problem can be traced to corporate policies that generate unwanted mail. Those little white pamphlets full of "mice type" that credit card companies periodically mail to account holders, for example, usually have buried inside a very misleadingly-named "Privacy Policy" that says the company intends to share your personal information with other businesses unless you opt out. Opting out requires filling in a form, putting an account number on it, and mailing it back to the company at your own expense, with no return envelope provided. Most people don't read these pamphlets, let alone go to the required level of effort to opt out, rendering this a practice that clearly breeds unwanted mail. Instead, companies could simply make "opt out" the default, and invite customers to "opt in" if they want to get more ads. This small change could assure that the company's future mailings are targeted to a far more receptive audience, with less of their mailings ending up in the trash. If companies voluntarily changed such policies, they could avoid legislation forcing them to do it. In an era where actual "green" corporate behavior is rare and highly prized by the public, such a worthwhile policy change could serve as a significant public relations and marketing coup.

Companies also constantly entice consumers with tempting special offers, coupons and discounts that are linked to address-harvesting schemes. In exchange for a discount, an offer of a freebie or the "chance" to win a big-ticket item, consumers are conned into turning over their personal contact information, which then lands them on innumerable mailing lists. Once you give money to a nonprofit organization, your name is often bought, sold, traded and circulated among innumerable other organizations who also then solicit you through the mail. Some refer to this as getting on the "sucker list." Information on how to avoid giving up personal information and ending up on this mail merry-go-round isn't readily available. There really is no practical education made available about how to recognize and avoid address-harvesting schemes, and such schemes just add to the ever-increasing junk mail burden we all must bear.

But a Do Not Mail list would make the Post Office go broke!

SnailmailBy some estimates, the Post Office derives 80% of its revenue from junk mail, leading some to argue that a Do Not Mail list will put the Post Office out of business. A similar theory was advanced by the tobacco industry and its allies for decades to stall the advance of smoke-free laws. We were told, over and over again by a variety of experts and studies, that ending smoking in bars and restaurants would drive businesses into the ground. It turned out that wasn't the case. Most people wanted smoke-free bars and restaurants, and experience has now shown time and time again that after a smoke-free law goes into effect, there is an initial shock while people figure out how to deal with the new situation, and then business returns, often better than before.

The same will probably be true of a Do Not Mail list. When fax machines were invented, no one argued against using them because they would hurt the Post Office. No one is saying don't use email because it hurts the Post Office. Fed Ex and UPS do hurt the Post Office, but no one is arguing they should be banned. All of these products and services exist because there is a demand for them. Blocking people from obtaining some form of control over the kind of mail they receive wastes time, money and resources, and is probably a futile exercise in the long run, since the demand for such control is strong and growing.

Let's also not forget the fact that the Post Office has been losing money even without a Do Not Mail list, as evidenced by rapidly increasing postal rates in recent years. The Post Office is run as a for-profit business, and it appears to be clinging tightly to a losing business model. Perhaps it is time for the Post Office start figuring how it can better serve people in the Twenty First Century, and what services they could provide that people really do want. One thing is for certain: it sure isn't more junk mail.

Viable alternatives to a Do Not Mail List?

There may be viable alternatives to a Do-Not-Mail bill that are more targeted, and achieve the same ends, but with fewer unintended consequences: Congress could pass a law requiring that all advertising mail be accompanied by a pre-paid postcard, or bear a toll-free number (in a minimum size font) to opt out of the mailing list. The Post Office could also announce that it will stop delivering mail that is addressed only to "Occupant" or "Current Resident."

One commentator on the original junk mail blog brought up the case of Rowan v. the United States Post Office, decided in 1970, which arguably affirmed citizens' rights to refuse unsolicited advertising through the mail. Under Rowan, the Supreme Court held that the law "allows the addressee unreviewable discretion to decide whether he wishes to receive any further material from a particular sender" and that "a vendor does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone's home, and a mailer's right to communicate must stop at the mailbox of an unreceptive addressee." It would seem that all that is left under Rowan is for the Post Office to create a mechanism through which citizens can refuse unsolicited advertising in the mail. While Rowan gave people this right, the junk-addicted Post Office has not moved this forward.

So how can we promote serious consideration of a variety of options to solve this problem in a way that will really make a difference? For starters, people can file complaints about the junk mail problem, accompanied by proposed alternatives, at the Web site of Postal Regulatory Commission at www.prc.gov. You can also write to Nanci Langley, Director, Public Affairs and Government Relations, Postal Regulatory Commission, 901 New York Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20268-0001. The Postal Regulatory Commission is completely independent of the Postal Service, and handles broad complaints about the mail. I'm told they take complaints seriously. People who still think a Do Not Mail list is a good idea can sign a petition in favor of it at www.DoNotMail.org. ForestEthics also offers an easy-to-use tool on their Web site to help reduce junk mail now, with no credit card required, and no fees.

If nothing else, efforts to enact a Do Not Mail list are drawing badly needed attention to the widespread desire of consumers "take back" their mail boxes from marketers and advertisers, and reduce the damaging amount of waste generated by junk mail. Sooner or later, one way or another, the people will achieve their goal.

Comments

To all pro-junkmail flacks out there who are composing posts about how junk mail benefits me -- feel free to send me all the junk mail you want, IF:

(a) I can put it directly into my car's gas tank, or

(b) You deliver each year's allotment every spring in the form of stove-length cordwood. The money you'd save on making it into paper and printing the ads on it would more than cover the costs of delivering it to me, and I'd be no less likely to buy whatever was being advertised.

Thank you, and have a nice day! :-)

Ms. Landman,

Thank you very much for covering this issue. Please excuse my lengthy replies in this thread and the one before.

Since a Do Not Mail database would by its nature be extremely fluid, who would maintain that database, and how would that maintenance be funded?

Like the Do Not Call Registry, it could be maintained by the FTC and funded by the direct marketers themselves, who pay an annual fee to access the data. If need be, we could apply some of the millions of dollars in taxes that are currently being spent on waste removal.

But it isn't hard to imagine that such a list could also have unintended consequences.

I think the key word here is "imagine." Before the Do Not Call list was implemented, telemarketers had the public "imagining" all kinds of gloom and doom scenarios that [http://www.usatoday.com/money/advertising/2004-10-13-do-not-call-fallout_x.htm never came to pass].

DMA's "Mail Preference Service," and other services, just don't seem like adequate solutions to the problem.

I agree that the DMA's registry is inadequate. In addition to the flaws you mention, there are numerous other shortcomings. The biggest issue is that only about 3,600 of the millions of junk mailers in the U.S. have access to the DMA's registry. Furthermore, to quote myself from [http://www.prwatch.org/node/7192#comment-2983 the previous thread], "it does nothing to stop local junk mail. It does nothing to stop rogue mailers and scammers who prey on the elderly and the mentally ill. It does nothing to stem the flood of junk mail that inundates small business owners, who the DMA prohibits from ever signing up. It offers no legal recourse for the consumer. And although the registry is about 40 years old, polls show that nearly 90% of us are still unhappy with the amount of junk mail we receive." The DMA registry has had four decades to work. It's time for something new.

As I also point out, there's an issue of trust. Consumers have good reason to distrust the DMA. After all, these are the same folks who fought alongside telemarketers to stop the Do Not Call registry. These are the same folks who at one point fought to perpetuate spam. And these are the same folks who are right now fighting against legislation that would offer consumers control over their mailboxes. Furthermore, the DMA's actions and statements in the past would suggest that the registry's primary function is to create the illusion of self-regulation in order to thwart legislation. And let's not forget that the DMA registry has been abused in the past by telemarketers who used it as a mailing list. Who knows what they do with your data once your five year registration expires. No, letting the DMA regulate junk mail is like letting the fox guard the proverbial hen house.

It would seem that all that is left under Rowan is for the Post Office to create a mechanism through which citizens can refuse unsolicited advertising in the mail.

Technically, such a mechanism does exist. It's called a [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibitory_Order Prohibitory Order]. Unfortunately, the Postal Service seems to do everything it can to discourage its use. We can't expect the Postal Service to offer any real solutions to junk mail; it's not in their interests to do so.

By some estimates, the Post Office derives 80% of its revenue from junk mail, leading some to argue that a Do Not Mail list will put the Post Office out of business.

I think this estimate is a bit high. It's more likely in the 33% to 50% range. Regardless, I don't buy the argument that a Do Not Mail registry is going to destroy the Postal Service or send rates skyrocketing. While eliminating unwanted junk mail may decrease their revenue, it will also radically decrease their expenses. Furthermore, the Postal Service requires every mail class to pay its own way. Junk mail is NOT subsidizing first class mail service. If anything, the consumer rates have at times subsidized junk mail. A few years back, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) argued that:

"The current USPS financial crisis is directly attributable to the $12 billion in postage discounts it gives annually to major mailers and direct mail firms for pre-sorting their mail. The discounts equal significantly more than the costs the Postal Service avoids when it receives presorted mail."([http://epic.org/privacy/postal 1])

The Postal Service's main problem is that they refuse to scale back, as a normal business would, in the face of decreasing demand for their products and services. They have numerous alternatives to raising rates. For one, they can start to address their notorious inefficiencies and bloated infastructure. (These are the same folks who recently ran up a [http://www.orlandosentinel.com/entertainment/dining/orl-gao1008apr10,0,726845.story $13,500 tab] at a steakhouse.)

So how can we promote serious consideration of a variety of options to solve this problem in a way that will really make a difference?

Writing Congress (and possibly the FTC and FCC) might be effective. I think the Postal Regulatory Commission is more likely to sympathize with the Postal Service than the consumer. In addition to the petition at [http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/281/t/5980/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=941 ForestEthics], please consider signing the ones at [http://tinyurl.com/3spc39 Green Dimes] and [http://www.newdream.org/cnad/user/user_petition_detail.php?config%5Bcom_region_global119%5D%5Binstance_uid%5D=7 New American Dream].

Sooner or later, one way or another, the people will achieve their goal.

I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks again for your efforts to bring this issue to the light, or perhaps I should say, bring light to this issue.

Rezzie Dannt
[http://www.junkmailrevolt.org Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

Dear Ms. Landman -- and with apologies to Mutternich, because I am a "pro-junkmail flack." :+)

I am encouraged by your latest posting, since you have at least moved away from the specious environmental arguments that ForestEthics and others have made in their attempts to enact bad legislation. Thank you for that.

Bashing the Postal Service is an intellectual exercise that I suppose is just about as old as the Postal Service itself, and I regret your slide into this really pointless debate.

Let's also not forget the fact that the Post Office has been losing money even without a Do Not Mail list, as evidenced by rapidly increasing postal rates in recent years.

Not true! Stamp prices have paralleled the overall CPI for almost forty years now. If you want to have a go at some group about inflation, please stick to health care and higher education, not the USPS.

And this point is also interesting:

If nothing else, efforts to enact a Do Not Mail list are drawing badly needed attention to the widespread desire of consumers "take back" their mail boxes from marketers and advertisers, and reduce the damaging amount of waste generated by junk mail. Sooner or later, one way or another, the people will achieve their goal.

I get suspicious when individuals claim to speak for "the people." How about the 56% of people who say opening their mail everyday is a "real pleasure."? Or the 55% who say they look forward to discovering what is in their mail every day? You can learn more about this in the USPS's "Mail Moment" study at http://www.usps.com/directmail/_pdf/05MailMoment.pdf, and please don't bash the survey simply because it is from the USPS. All companies study their customers' behavior, and the data show what the data show.

Ultimately, we both want the same thing -- for consumers to receive the mail they want. All the tools they need to assert control over the mailbox already exist, and individuals need only make their choices known to mailers.

Matt Broder
Vice President, External Communications
Pitney Bowes Inc.

I am encouraged by your latest posting, since you have at least moved away from the specious environmental arguments that ForestEthics and others have made in their attempts to enact bad legislation.

Mr. Broder, I was a little late to the party in the last thread, so perhaps you missed my responses [http://www.prwatch.org/node/7192#comment-2983 here], [http://www.prwatch.org/node/7192#comment-2984 here], and [http://www.prwatch.org/node/7192#comment-2985 here]. I think I make a strong case that your environmental position is, in fact, the one that's specious.

I regret your slide into this really pointless debate.

Would you say that the preferences and feelings of 80 to 90% of the public are pointless? Would you say that the right to be left alone, which the esteemed Justice Brandeis famously called "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men," is pointless? Would you say that our Constitutional right to peacably enjoy our privacy and property is pointless? Would you say the health of our planet, which is undergoing deforestation rates that National Geographic calls a "Forest Holocaust", is pointless? Then with all due respect, I would hardly classify this debate as pointless.

Not true!

So you would deny her main point, which is that the Postal Service is in financial trouble? Interesting.

I get suspicious when individuals claim to speak for "the people." How about the 56% of people who say opening their mail everyday is a "real pleasure."? Or the 55% who say they look forward to discovering what is in their mail every day?

The link you provide says that about half those polled enjoy opening their mail in general. It does not say they enjoy receiving junk mail. Big difference. (Also, what about the other half?)

When asked about junk mail specifically, polls consistently show that 80 to 90 percent of the public dislikes it. For example, according to a 2007 Zogby poll, 89% say they dislike junk mail and would actively use an option such as a Do Not Mail registry.

I'm afraid you're using the same tactic that was employed by telemarketers who fought the Do Not Call registry. They, too, misapplied poll data to skew the reality of public opinion. Then, when the people had a chance to speak for themselves, tens of millions signed up for the Do Not Call registry within the first few months of its existence.

If the junk mail industry truly believed that people like receiving junk mail, it wouldn't be so desperate to prevent the public from having an easy and comprehensive means of opting out. The fury with which junk mail advocates are fighting against consumer-friendly legislation is strong evidence that it doesn't believe its own talking points regarding public preferences. After all, if people truly liked junk mail, they wouldn't bother to use the registry, would they? In which case, why fight against it?

Ultimately, we both want the same thing -- for consumers to receive the mail they want.

Again, this is almost identical to the mantra of the telemarketers. We didn't believe them, and we don't believe you. Forgive the cliche, but actions speak louder than words.

All the tools they need to assert control over the mailbox already exist

If that's truly the case, then again, why is your industry fighting so hard to prevent the public from having one more tool at its disposal? The fact is, current tools, such as the DMA registry, are grossly inadequate. (See my previous post for a list of the DMA registry's shortcomings.)

Rezzie Dannt
[http://www.junkmailrevolt.org Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

Rezzie --

My reference to a "pointless debate" was specific to Ms. Landman's comments about the US Postal Service, and it is pointless. People can criticize the USPS all they want -- it's a free country. But it's an organization that gets a heck of a lot done under some pretty significant operating constraints (highly unionized, highly subject to Congressional scrutiny), and has achieved impressive productivity growth in the past several years. It is financially challenged like many large organizations, but it is addressing those challenges in a thoughtful and long-term way.

It's clear that you and I are not going to be able to persuade each other of the correctness of our respective positions, and I won't bore PR Watch readers by trying to argue with you until we are both out of breath. You have your facts, I have mine, and in the great US democratic tradition, we will compete in the marketplace of ideas for some time to come.

Matt

Matt Broder
Vice President, External Communications
Pitney Bowes Inc.

My reference to a "pointless debate" was specific to Ms. Landman's comments about the US Postal Service, and it is pointless

Mr. Broder,

Thank you for the clarification. While I agree that the Postal Service in many ways does an admirable job under difficult circumstances, I find it troubling that you would disregard a consumer's constructive criticism as "pointless."

This sort of dismissive attitude towards consumer sentiment is precisely why the industry is in jeopardy. Your comment only bolsters Ms. Landman's argument, which is that the industry continues to ignore consumer preference at its own peril.

Good business model: giving consumers what they want
Bad business model: forcing upon consumers what they despise

Unfortunately, the Postal Service's ever-growing reliance on junk mail violates these basic principles of Business 101. They would be wise to take heed. The axe of consumer wrath is about to fall, and it won't be nearly so kind as Ms. Landman's gentle commentary.

I won't bore PR Watch readers by trying to argue with you until we are both out of breath

I accept your admission of defeat.

All kidding aside, I'm disappointed that you refuse to address even one of the issues I've raised. I would remind you that our purpose here is not to persuade each other, but to engage in what you previously described as "a balanced, two-way debate that lets individuals make truly informed decisions on their own." It's not a debate if you merely state your talking points, then turn tail and run at the first threat of substantive dialogue.

At the very least, it would be nice if you would answer this one question: If the industry honestly believes that people like junk mail, then why is it engaged in such an aggressive campaign against Do Not Mail? As I've pointed out before, an opt-out registry is only a threat to you if consumers dislike junk mail enough to opt out. I'm sure the folks here at PR Watch are as eager as I am for an answer.

Rezzie Dannt
[http://www.junkmailrevolt.org Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

Anne Landman's analysis of the junk mail problem is the best I have heard for some time, and I speak as a former junk mail data broker turned privacy activist. Her insight into two of the most significant problems of unwanted mail, the U.S. Postal Service's supposed dependency on it for survival, and the Direct Marketing Assn.'s Mail Preference Service, which is supposed to stop mail, is priceless. I must add, the biggest problem with junk mail, however, is junk mailers who think they own our names and personal data, and can do with them as they see fit.

There is a way to stop all this, and that is to give consumers control over their names and private information, and compensate them when it is sold as incentive to accept this responsibility. I have been blogging on this for over three years in The Dunning Letter, attempting to start a grass-roots movement for federal legislation. You can see my rantings and ravings here: http://www.thedunningletter.blogspot.com

Very anxious to know what Ms. Landman and readers think of this?

Jack E. Dunning
The Dunning Letter
Cave Creek, AZ

your link doesn't work when I click on it, but typing the URL out manually works okay.

Hi Mutternich...

Thanks for hanging in there. Sometimes I am technologically impaired, and apparently that was one incident. Hope you found what you wanted.

Jack

Jack E. Dunning
The Dunning Letter
Cave Creek, AZ

Mr. Dunning,

Welcome to the discussion. I discovered your blog some time ago, bookmarked it for reference, and even read quite a few of your earlier posts. You have some unique and fresh perspectives that I'd like to explore more thoroughly when I have a chance. Because you present a lot of information that requires digestion, it's difficult to give much feedack other than to say congratulations on leaving the dark side. It's good to have you on the team.

Rezzie Dannt
[http://www.junkmailrevolt.org Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

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