Someone out there: Personalized direct mail can send the wrong message

This monthly column looks at marketing issues from a consumer's point of view. Our consumer columnist is a single, urban-dwelling female, 18-34, with a university degree and an income in the $30K to $40K range.Congratulations! You may already have won.....some free...

This monthly column looks at marketing issues from a consumer’s point of view. Our consumer columnist is a single, urban-dwelling female, 18-34, with a university degree and an income in the $30K to $40K range.

Congratulations! You may already have won…..some free advice on how not to alienate potential customers with direct mail.

I have to admit right off the bat that I’m not a big fan of direct mail. Usually I make it a point to throw out anything labelled ‘bulk mail’ without even opening it.

But, recently, I found something in my mailbox that ticked me off so much that I not only opened it, I instituted a survey of the unsolicited mail I was receiving in order to write a column about it.

It seems to me that these days companies are using state-of-the-art printing technology to perpetrate an age-old ploy, namely, duping people.

I find few things more annoying than receiving an envelope that has been designed to look like a personal letter to me, except that it has a ‘bulk mail’ postage mark. It makes me ask the $64,000 question: ‘How stupid do you think I am?’

I once heard an anecdote about how in the old days when advertising agencies were largely confined to New York City’s Madison Avenue, a greenhorn wanted to use a big word in the ad he was producing.

The resident wise old sage said: ‘Take a train to the Midwest, take a bus back, and if you still want to use that big word, go ahead.’

The idea being that the average person was too uneducated/just plain stupid to understand the big word.

Granted, I have a higher education than most and a higher iq than many, but surely even the vast bulk of the great unwashed, when looking at direct mail pieces, must sometimes find this underlying arrogance offensive.

During my survey, the advertising community played right into my hands by sending me a great cross-section of direct mail to analyze. (Thanks!)

I mention some samples here in descending order of how happy I was to receive them.

Topping the list were my beloved grocery and drug store flyers which I usually read from cover to cover with great interest.

A distant second were those few pieces that stated their cases on the envelopes, in relatively low-key terms, and let me decide if there was a chance I might be interested in what was inside.

I have no problem with these pieces; even if it turns out that I’m not interested in the product/service, I can at least have respect for the company.

These pieces included a War Amps – Ontario mailing which said ‘Here are your 50th anniversary commemorative key tags,’ and a piece from The Folio Society promising ‘An exceptional offer from England’s leading publisher of fine books.’

At the next lower level was a colorful piece from TV Guide (to which I subscribe) marked ‘Exclusive to TV Guide Subscribers,’ and promising ‘Valuable Offers Inside! and ‘Terrific Gift Ideas.’

I place this item lower because it doesn’t reveal the nature of the offer and it makes me start wondering if this piece is from TV Guide or if they’ve just sold my name to other companies when I’ve specifically told them not to.

At the next level, we encounter the ‘How stupid…?’ question but in such a crass form that it only ranks as a ‘give me a break.’

This piece was big, loud and addressed me by name in a ‘____ is in a `dead-heat tie’ with four other winners and is guaranteed at least $10,000,000 cash.’

Yeah, right.

The last piece, the nadir of the direct mail industry, is the one I mentioned at the top. It still makes me angry even weeks after first getting it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s stuff like this that necessitated the invention of the term ‘junk mail.’

This little baby was not marked ‘bulk,’ but, rather, ‘#088′ in what is supposed to look like blue handwriting. First piece of trickery.

It put a spin on the personalization ploy by not being addressed to me, but rather having three lines of copy that look like they were typed on a Selectric typewriter which, in these computerized days, are now largely found only in people’s homes.

As if, duh, I’m going to think a friend of mine had been thinking of me and dropped me a line. Second (major/evil) piece of trickery.

The message reads: ‘I think the enclosed survey will interest you. Please complete and return it within the next couple of days. Thank you, Diane.’ The ‘Diane’ is ‘hand-written’ in blue ink.

Next, the return address is ‘Diane Simon, Consumer Research Centre.’

The words ‘Consumer Research Centre’ look like they were printed professionally. The name ‘Diane Simon’ looks like it was typed on a Selectric.

The third and completely unforgivable piece of trickery is that the ‘S’ in Simon is raised up a bit, as if the Selectric needs to be repaired.

Seriously, folks, that S makes me so mad I could spit. Exactly how stupid would I have to be not to see through any of these devices?

And even if you managed to fool me into opening the envelope, how would I feel about a company that made me feel like a fool?

You know, the ironic thing about this is that, because this envelope made me so mad that I wanted to see who had sent it, I opened this piece of direct mail and it contained something I would have been interested in participating in.

In fact, it’s the same shopping habits survey that I filled out a few years ago with great interest and at the expense of at least two hours of my time.

(It reached me that time because my father got it in the mail and he sent it to me thinking I might find it interesting.)

That time, I answered all the questions and included about two pages of additional comments – one of the few negatives of which was that I found it insulting they would think that I would believe the survey would be personally sent to me from some lady called Diane.

This time, the survey gets publically blasted, then goes into the garbage.

So my free advice is: personalization may be having the opposite effect to what you intended.

If a company I already deal with addresses me by name, fine. For anyone else, if you’re sending out mass mailings and you don’t know me from Adam, then be honest about it. I’ll have a lot more respect for you.

You know, contrary to popular belief, we’re not stupid out here, and no one, even those of us who are heedless enough to fall for the tricks, likes to feel duped. So, stop it.