Posted by Anne Landman on April 09, 2008

Junk MailJunk mail kills trees, clogs mailboxes, packs landfills, wastes natural resources, and everyone would be glad to be rid of it. Right?

Well, maybe not.

Whether out of environmental concern or sheer annoyance, legislated efforts to reduce junk mail are on the rise, but companies that have vested interests in its continuance have started organizing to save it--in a big way. Of course, they don't call it junk mail. Their preferred euphemisms are "advertising mail," "direct mail" or even "standard mail."

Industry Ramps Up Efforts to Preserve Junk Mail

A little-noticed, April 2008 press release from an organization called the National Association of Printing Leadership (NAPL) announced that it had awarded its 2008 "Technical Leadership Award" to Benjamin Y. Cooper for his work as "a dedicated champion and eloquent spokesman for the print media." Sounds innocent enough, but who exactly is Cooper, and what did he do to merit this award?

Cooper is a principal in the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, who for almost three decades has been the chief lobbyist for the U.S. printing industry. He also heads Mail Moves America (MMA), a pro-junk mail front group that works to prevent the passage of "Do Not Mail" laws that would give consumers a way to opt out of receiving junk mail, similar to the way "Do Not Call" lists have helped people end unwanted telemarketing calls. Formed in 2007, MMA is the creation of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a trade association for companies and industries that profit from the creation and sending of junk mail, like printers, advertisers, paper manufacturers and paper catalogue retailers.

On its web site, MMA says "Do Not Mail" laws would be "bad public policy." It dismisses the accusation that junk mail destroys trees as "a myth," saying simply, "Direct mail is not trees, it is printed communication." In a July 10, 2007 press release, DMA President & CEO John A. Greco, Jr. called state bills to set up "Do Not Mail" lists "misguided legislation" that is "being driven by environmental, privacy, and consumer groups who often distort the facts in their efforts to eliminate advertising mail to consumers." Greco said MMA responds aggressively to Do Not Mail list initiatives with "convincing information about the consumer benefits of advertising mail."

U.S. Postal Service: Using Third Party Technique to Preserve Junk Mail?

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is another player with a vested interest in the junk mail issue. It derives a substantial portion of its revenues from bulk mailers, so giving people the ability to opt out from receiving junk mail would threaten its budget. The Postal Service is prohibited from lobbying Congress on its own behalf, so it cannot directly oppose “Do Not Mail” legislation. According to the Washington Post, however, the USPS is "working closely with the Direct Marketing Association ... in its new campaign -- Mail Moves America -- which is designed to quash the Do Not Mail initiatives." Thus, even our trusted post office is not beyond using the third party technique to achieve a business goal.

A related pro junk-mail effort is a new web site called IP Moves the Mail, started by the International Paper Company. International Paper is a multinational corporation with offices around the world, and as a paper manufacturer, it stands to lose business if laws are enacted that reduce the quantity of paper being dropped into mailboxes. "IP Moves the Mail" therefore facilitates pro-junk mail activism, urging visitors to contact their legislators and oppose passage of "Do Not Mail" bills.

Most people don't like the mounting number of unsolicited ads that arrive in their mail and would be happy to have a way to be rid of them. In a world of diminishing resources, junk mail consumes tremendous amounts of dwindling resources, most of which ends up as trash. At a time when people are increasingly using electronic communication, is it right or sensible to give credence to a fight to preserve what might be an anachronistic industry whose time might be naturally winding down anyway? Would it be so bad to create a way for only those consumers who want paper junk mail to be the ones to receive it? Despite the junk mail industry's "sky-is-falling" attitude, legislation allowing consumers to block unwanted mail probably wouldn't end the world. "Do Not Mail" bills, in addition to saving increasingly precious natural resources, just might give people some peace until advertisers start finding more ingenious and less harmful ways to put their ads under our noses.

Comments

Ms. Landman --

It is regrettable that you dismiss as "spin" the mailing industry's efforts to bring to light what you could more generously describe as "underreported facts." In the marketplace of ideas, what do you find objectionable about a balanced, two-way debate that lets individuals make truly informed decisions on their own?

In this case, here are the relevant facts, which certainly did not get reported in your comments above:

* Consumers do not need legislation to end unwanted mail. They already have the option to get themselves off mailing lists they do not wish to be on. Among others, the Direct Marketing Association offers a Mail Preference Service that anyone can access at www.dmachoice.org.

* Trees are a renewable resource, not a dwindling resource. Every year, paper and forest products companies plant more than one billion trees so they have a sustainable business model.

* On the margin, mail has environmental benefits. These include reducing carbon emissions by replacing individual car trips with remote transactions. Examples include pharmaceuticals by mail (fewer trips to the drug store), DVD rental by mail (fewer trips to the video store), and catalog shopping (fewer trips to the mall).

Those are facts. Now, here comes the spin --

What actually happens if Do Not Mail bills become law? Remember, the US Postal Service must deliver to every address in America, six days a week. To the extent that direct mail volumes decline, the US Postal Service would have to raise the cost of all other forms of postage in order to maintain the infrastructure needed to fulfill its delivery mandate. Who gets hurt by that? Big business, for sure, but what about the nonprofit sector, which uses the mail to raise money? What about small businesses that are trying to grow? There is a profound social and economic cost to Do Not Mail that its supporters simply refuse to deal with.

As a supporter of the "front group" Mail Moves America (you could also just call us a plain old "coalition"), I don't expect to persuade you, but thank you for offering this opportunity to comment and contribute to the debate.

Matt Broder
Vice President, External Communications
Pitney Bowes Inc.

I have to agree with Mr. Broder. Far too often we have individuals or organizations pushing their agendas without presenting all of the facts. First, Ms. Landman is wrong about "Most people don't like the mounting number of unsolicited ads..." except maybe most of her friends. In fact 74% of Americans prefer their advertisements through the mail than any other medium. Now let's talk about the numerous ads that are in newspapers. Add up the weight of newpapers and the ads in them and one will see that the average weight of newspapers exceeds the average weight of ads through the US Mail. How about those unwanted ads in the magazines as well? We should prohibit those because of the same arguments that Ms. Landman is using. What about those political fliers that are left on the door knob. I don't know about you but I hate that because they come off the door knob and then become trash blowing in the wind. Heck let's ban advertisement on TV. That is almost as annoying as those phone solicitors. Same for radio.

The bottom line is that there are alternatives out there like Mr. Broder stated (unlike the aforementioned). In addition, individuals have control of the ads. They can peruse them at their leisure or simply discard them in their recycle bin. Shopping by mail (or phone) is also better on the environment than shopping at the mall. It lessens traffic congestion and pollution.

Finally, Article 8 of the US Constitution grants the US Congress sole authority "To establish post offices and post roads. To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers...". Maybe these state legislators need to brush up on the US Constitution.

"Add up the weight of newpapers and the ads in them and one will see that the average weight of newspapers exceeds the average weight of ads through the US Mail. How about those unwanted ads in the magazines as well?"

This about those unwanted ads in magazines and newspapers: people chose -- I think "opted in" is the modern term, isn't it? -- to subscribe to the magazines and newspapers. Which chosen subscribing, by the way, is getting more problematic:

http://www.mediabistro.com/unbeige/magazines/secondclass_postage_and_the_death_of_the_smallrun_magazines_78309.asp

Given my druthers, I'd hike junkmail rates and keep second class rates low to help magazines and papers that people actually want to read stay in business.

"The senders of the mail are the ones bearing the costs to send them the ads."

Perhaps not entirely. See above. Also,

"...Individuals have control of the ads. They can peruse them at their leisure or simply discard them in their recycle bin."

Newsflash: recycling doesn't happen by magic. It costs money, whether you have to buy authorized recycling bags from your city or just have it included in your tax bill. You pay for it one way or another.

That's one thing about living in a very small town -- you're less insulated from the knowledge of what things like transporting trash to recycling centers is costing municipalities as fuel prices keep going up. And in some places there's simply no way to dispose of your trash that results in its being recycled. "Just toss it in the recycling bin" is simply the junkmailers' denial of how they externalize (i.e., socialize) the cost of disposal. YOU should quit arguing nonsense.

"When I am on the internet, I don't want to be bothered with ads or popups. Those are far more annoying that ad mail."

May I suggest Firefox? It's free and it's pretty darn good at blocking unwanted popups. :-)

This may be a very good place to follow the money. Who benefits most if junk mail were to disappear? Might it be newspapers? Traditionally, newspapers have editorialized against junk mail.

There are all sorts of reasons why junk mail is an annoyance and certainly the way it is used could be improved. The vitriol and ridicule along with the fraudulent "evidence" used by professional lobbyists on both sides of all sorts of issues, that is seeping into this dialog is disturbing, though.

may i make a few points?

the countless banking and insurance ads in junk mail are annoying. They are also annoying in the paper, in the magazines, on the radio, on billboards and in TV. Those ads have annoyances specific to the medium but it is not the medium that makes them annoying.

contrary to vague statement above that the DMA's Do not mail list was difficult to use, in fact, it takes only a phone call or a letter to use.

junk mail is effective. Were it not, people would spend their ad dollars elsewhere. some more effective, some less. Mailers would love to send less and targetting skills are growing. You will see more and more smaller, more effective mailings.

junk mail works for some industries and campaigns and is weak or bad for others. The ad agency for the post office doesn't get that. The post office campaigns to promote junk mail are in the bad category.

in my opinion the post office should fill a need not create a need to fill. Ads and PR that create awareness are good, ones that promote the use of mail, not so hot. (However ditto with airline subsidies that hurt rail, junk food subsidies that profit fast food's rapid employee turn-over, etc.

it is worse, though. The new rates in periodicals favor large mailers like Time-Warner at the expense of small mailers like your state's magazine or small newsletters. Not so good but TW wrote the law, basically, so what should we expect.

Recycling: the communities that don't recycle should with or without junk mail. All sorts of household and office paper are carried to the recycling center. Mail is just a part of it. a lot of the tax dollars used to recycle come rromo business who get their business from junk mail.

it would be nice to be able to stop getting certain pieces of mail. Try the Do Not Mail registrar. It'll stop some after a couple of months. Want to stop a whole class of mail?like Standard (what used to be known as third class for the most part)? Ready to stop getting certain information from your city, county and state? Ready to see your favorite charity take a huge hit? Ditto for your church.

it is a complex issue. The solutions are available but take thought. Remember the law of unintended consequences. Everything we do, along with maybe solving our problem, has a consequence we never intended.

"The countless banking and insurance ads in junk mail are annoying. They are also annoying in the paper, in the magazines, on the radio, on billboards and in TV."

Yes, but people CHOOSE to buy the newspapers, magazines and the TV sets. What's so complex about that point?

"Ready to stop getting certain information from your city, county and state? Ready to see your favorite charity take a huge hit? Ditto for your church."

Charities and political candidates are exempt from the national do-not-call registry. Life is so much nicer now that we have that law, even with those exemptions.

I get the feeling you're a professional complexifier.

junk mail is effective. Were it not, people would spend their ad dollars elsewhere. some more effective, some less.

Junk mail advocates often praise the cost-effectiveness of direct mail. Of course, it only appears cost-effective when you ignore the hidden costs that are being dumped on the general public. We're the ones paying the price in terms of peace and privacy, time and energy, waste removal, environmental destruction, and so on. Besides, can you really argue that a method is effective in any sense of the word when it violates the rights and wishes of 80 to 90% of us in order to reach 1 or 2%? I don't think so.

Furthermore, even if I were to concede that junk mail is effective, its effectiveness is ultimately besides the point. If I were to steal apples off my neighbors' trees and sell them without their consent, that's a pretty darn cost-effective business model. Unfortunately, it's not within my rights. Likewise, it is not within the rights of junk mailers to fill my mailbox with stuff I don't wish to receive, no matter how cost-effective their business model may or may not be.

Ready to stop getting certain information from your city, county and state? Ready to see your favorite charity take a huge hit? Ditto for your church.

In addition to the point made by Mutternich that charities will likely be exempt from a Do Not Mail registry, I'd also like to suggest that it's possible to build a certain amount of flexibility into the system. There's no reason we can't have a registry that categorizes junk mail as national, local, political, charitable, and so on. This would allow people to opt out of certain kinds of mailings, and not others.

Finally, folks can always opt in to individual mail lists. It's far easier to contact organizations one by one and ask to be added to their mailing list than it is to opt out of all the mailings you don't wish to receive.

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

First, Ms. Landman is wrong about "Most people don't like the mounting number of unsolicited ads..." except maybe most of her friends. In fact 74% of Americans prefer their advertisements through the mail than any other medium.

I'm sure most Americans prefer losing a limb to losing their life, but that doesn't mean most Americans LIKE losing a limb. Similarly, folks may prefer receiving solicitations in the mail to receiving them by phone, but that doesn't mean they LIKE receiving solicitations in the mail. It just means they hate junk mail less than the other mediums.

The fact is, polls consistently show that 80 to 90% of the public dislikes junk mail. (See the 2007 Zogby poll I cited above.) Direct marketers may play dumb to this fact, but they know it's true. Otherwise they wouldn't be so intent on denying consumers an easy, comprehensive way to exercise their right to be left alone.

Now let's talk about the numerous ads that are in newspapers... How about those unwanted ads in the magazines as well? ...That is almost as annoying as those phone solicitors. Same for radio.

This is what's called a false analogy. Direct mail is different from other mediums like magazines, newspapers, radio, and television in three very important ways:

1) The other mediums provide value / content in exchange for viewing ads. It's a give-and-take relationship, whereas junk mail is all take and no give. If junk mail were TV, it would be all commercials and no programming. If junk mail were a magazine, it would be all ads and no articles.

2) The other mediums are opt-in. Consumers must specifically request (and often pay) to receive them. Conversely, consumers must request (and often pay) to NOT receive junk mail. If junk mail were TV, it would turn itself on at will and have no off switch. If magazines were junk mail, we'd all be getting Good Housekeeping and Hustler whether we wanted them or not.

3) The other mediums are easy to opt out of. I can cancel cable service or a magazine subscription with a single phone call. I can turn off the radio with a flick of the wrist. There is no easy and comprehensive way to stem the flood of junk mail. Not with a thousand phone calls and a thousand dollars can I guarantee myself a completely junk-free existence.

Junk mail is more analagous with telemarketing and spam, and we all know what happened there. Congress created the Do Not Call registry and passed the CAN-SPAM Act. In fact, one could argue that junk mail is more intrusive and destructive than either telemarketing or spam. After all, spam doesn't kill trees, telemarketing doesn't consume landfill space, and of course, there's no caller ID or spam filter for your mailbox.

Finally, Article 8 of the US Constitution grants the US Congress sole authority "To establish post offices and post roads. To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers...".

Not so fast. Article 8 may grant Congress the authority to establish a post office, but that's a far cry from granting junk mailers the authority to invade our homes with communication that we don't wish to receive. You would be far wiser to argue that junk mailers have a First Amendment freedom of speech. Even then, you would still lose the argument. The Supreme Court ruled in [http://supreme.justia.com/us/397/728/ Rowan v. Post Office] that a junk mailer's right to send junk mail is superceded by one's right not to receive it:

"[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."

Furthermore, failure to give people an ability to opt out of unwanted mailings "would tend to license a form of trespass and would make hardly more sense than to say that a radio or television viewer may not twist the dial to cut off an offensive or boring communication and thus bar its entering his home. Nothing in the Constitution compels us to listen to or view any unwanted communication, whatever its merit; we see no basis for according the printed word or pictures a different or more preferred status because they are sent by mail."

Maybe these state legislators need to brush up on the US Constitution.

I couldn't agree more. However, I don't think it would result in the outcome you seem to expect. I'm pretty sure the Constitution doesn't favor invasive commercial speech over the fundamental right of individuals to peacably enjoy their privacy and property.

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

"On the margin, mail has environmental benefits. These include reducing carbon emissions by replacing individual car trips with remote transactions. Examples include pharmaceuticals by mail (fewer trips to the drug store), DVD rental by mail (fewer trips to the video store), and catalog shopping (fewer trips to the mall)."

Nice, but it applies to goods the recipients have ordered through those remote transactions, not to the junk mail. Nobody says mail delivery of desired goods doesn't have environmental benefits. That paragraph belongs in the spin section.

Since you mention pharmaceuticals, I'd much rather plan to combine that trip to the drug store with other necessary errands and have the pharmacist hand me the drugs directly. Where I live I'm always returning misdelivered mail to the post office, including someone else's prescription drugs at least once.

Every year, paper and forest products companies plant more than one billion trees so they have a sustainable business model.

Mr. Broder,

Sustainability is not just about replanting a tree for each one that's killed (something I don't believe the industries are doing anyway). As I say in my previous posts, there are externalities (i.e. public costs) that you fail to include in your accounting. Many folks within your own industry concede that junk mail is unsustainable.

On the margin, mail has environmental benefits. These include reducing carbon emissions by replacing individual car trips with remote transactions.

Tell you what. Give me $100 and in exchange I'll give you a nice, crisp $5 bill. On the margin, it's a great deal for you because you end up with a $5 bill you didn't have before. Heck, while we're on the margin, let's argue that strawberry milkshakes are health food because they have fruit in them.

Let's not talk about benefits "on the margin." Let's talk about net effects. Total benefits minus total costs. The bottom line is that when you do the math, the environmental benefits of junk mail (if there are any) are nowhere near significant enough to offset the costs.

Furthermore, I reject the premise that junk mail reduces automobile traffic "by replacing individual car trips with remote transactions." It's a clever hypothesis, but not one that's grounded in reality. Here are a few of the holes in your theory:

1. You assume that people make separate trips for every item they purchase. In fact, people often don't go to the store until they need multiple items. What they don't buy through the mail, folks might buy as part of a shopping trip they would have made anyway.

2. You ignore the distinct possibility that people never would have purchased the item in the first place if it weren't for junk mail manufacturing a desire for it.

3. You assume that people will jump in the car, when in fact they might jump online instead.

4. A lot of junk mail isn't for stuff that requires driving. (e.g. Financial offers, insurance, internet / phone service, sweepstakes, etc.)

5. When you factor in junk mail's lousy 1 or 2% response rate, the reduction in delivery trucks and garbage trucks may very well offset any increase in indivdual car trips.

To the extent that direct mail volumes decline, the US Postal Service would have to raise the cost of all other forms of postage in order to maintain the infrastructure needed to fulfill its delivery mandate.

If you're implying that junk mail subsidizes regular mail, it isn't true. The Postal Service requires every mail class to carry its own financial weight. If anything, regular mail has at times subsidized junk mail. A few years ago, 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])

Moreover, there are numerous alternatives to raising rates. The Postal Service could start by correcting their notorious inefficiencies, wasteful spending habits, 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.) Or they could offer services that are actually relevant in the Information Age. Or they could (and should) consider downsizing and privatizing.

What about small businesses that are trying to grow?

I love how junk mail advocates claim to care about small businesses. If they truly cared, they'd offer small business owners the option to opt out of receiving junk mail. (The DMA only permits residential opt-outs.) The American Small Business Alliance has called junk mail "a drain on the time and resources of any business."([http://www.metrokc.gov/dnrp/swd/nwpc/bizjunkmail.htm 2]) And as a former small business owner myself, I can confirm that fact.

There is a profound social and economic cost to Do Not Mail that its supporters simply refuse to deal with.

Pot, meet kettle.

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

Your view points are valid but shortsighted.
As a child of an aging parent with Alzheimer's I am forced to intercept my mothers mail on a daily basis to curtail the overwhelming onslaught of solicitations arriving in her mailbox every day. She is responsible for attracting many of the lobbyists and non-profit groups that hound her daily. Having been brought to tears by their sob stories and tales of doom checks have been written, some however have even gone so far as to take a small donation check she has written and turn it into an automatic monthly withdrawal from her account without her consent. Through her bank we have stopped the withdrawals but unfortunately we have been unsuccessful in making them stop the mailings. I have even gone so far as to mail them notification of her passing and demanded that she be removed from their mailing lists but to no avail, the deluge continues. This in my opinion falls under Elder Abuse and should be punishable by law. I have no facts at hand but I suspect that the vast majority of the success from all direct marketing mailings comes from this group of citizens, the elderly, the ones who should have our protection from such scams but access to any kind of 'cease and desist' policy does not exist. If we continue to protect the interest of the 'Corporate Individual' over the protection of the Individual Citizen without exception we as a society are in for a very dark future.

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