Please, no more legalese

WARNING: Only subscribers and non-subscribers, and regular and occasional readers of Strategy Direct+Interactive are granted permission to read this column. It has been written especially for these forenamed audiences and, furthermore, has been imprinted in indelible ink on genuine newsprint for...

WARNING: Only subscribers and non-subscribers, and regular and occasional readers of Strategy Direct+Interactive are granted permission to read this column. It has been written especially for these forenamed audiences and, furthermore, has been imprinted in indelible ink on genuine newsprint for this express purpose.

Does that notice make you more inclined to read this column? Of course I can’t speak for you, but my first guess would be in the negative. But who knows? Some magazine publishers seem to be having considerable success of late using such admonishments in their direct mail packages.

The most recent one I read had me both chuckling and shaking my head in disbelief that there are actually people in this world who respond to their kind of ever-so-official-sounding statements.

It was on the outer envelope of a DM package from Reader’s Digest and read, ‘WARNING: These documents are issued in conformance with Canadian law, to wit, the Canada Post Corporation Act, Sections 48 and 49. Interference with delivery of this package to the authorized addressee is subject to criminal prosecution and offenders may be pursued to the full extent of the law.’

Then, not content to either scare or bemuse every postal worker this side of a sorting machine, and impress a sufficiently profitable percentage of the people on RD’s mailing list, they also went to pains to explain that the envelope itself was designed to prevent postal crime.

They said as much on the front of their envelope, along with instructions to ‘See warning notice over.’ And, on the back, they stated in large block letters, ‘TAMPER PROOF’ and for good measure threw in ‘TAMPER PROOF•SEALED FOR SECURITY•TAMPER PROOF.’

Hey, they’re not lying. First, as they purport in their prosecurial threat, it is illegal to steal somebody’s mail. And their envelope does incorporate a tamper-resistant feature – it has a pre-glued flap that, when moistened, seals the envelope.

Theirs reminds me of an envelope from Canadian Family Publishers, which I described in my March 27 column. Its crime-preventative warning states: ‘This flap has been specially engineered to prevent security violations of important contents.’ Yes, it too had a glued flap that kept the guts of the package from spilling onto the street.

In case you’re coming to the conclusion that I’m against this kind of overstatement and trickery, I’m really not. If it’s working, why not go for it? The gimmicks these guys use are the result of two things: (1) Some degree of ingenuity on the part of the creators; and (2) their knowledge of the public’s naiveté.

I can just imagine how Reader’s Digest’s creative brief describes their target audience. Age: 24-74, IQ: 24-74. And what’s sad is that RD, at least in the case of respondents, is probably right.

Even credit card companies are now getting into the our-mail-is-more-official-than-the-other-mail-you-get-today game. A package I received from one this summer didn’t identify who the sender was but did state on the envelope, ‘Form 3087 Enclosed’. Then they added a box that read, ‘NOTICE: Deliver in strict accordance with Canada Post policies and procedures.’

I can just imagine what posties have to say about these mailings. ‘Hey, Mary, I’m thinking I might rip open a few of these 400,000 magazine subscription envelopes here. Maybe the credit card ones. too.’

‘No way, Ralph. Look…they’re tamper-proof.’

‘Damn, foiled by modern technology again! Well, maybe I just won’t deliver them.’

‘Think again, Ralph. As these envelopes clearly make apparent, interference with the delivery of these packages to the authorized addressees could result in criminal prosecution.’

‘You’re right again. Well, I want to get up to some kind of mischief. Maybe I’ll get in my car and smash it into that mini-van. And don’t tell me I can’t. ‘Cause as you can see, it doesn’t have a ‘Baby On Board’ sign in the back window.’

‘Fine. Without a sign like that to stop you, that vehicle must be fair game.’

I digress but, during the time that I was a new father, I never once sported a Baby On Board sign in my window – even when I had a baby on board. I just hoped that the lack of one wouldn’t serve as an invitation for some driver to ram my car. And, as fortune would have it, no one did.

But now that publishers seemed to have discovered the need to issue reminders about the laws of our land, I’m beginning to think I should put up at least some kind of signage to dissuade the road-raging public. Something like: ATTENTION: Driving your vehicle into mine may result in, apart from damage and/or injury and/or death, criminal prosecution under the Highways Act and/or by the insurer of said vehicle.

Or maybe I’ll keep it simpler and copy the burglar-deterring sign that ex-wrestler and current Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has on his front lawn, ‘I don’t call 911.’

But getting back to direct marketers’ envelope warnings about potential legal doom, what concerns me most is the danger that advertisers in other media will, figuring DMers are onto something good, start to emulate them.

What if, in future, every TV commercial is prefaced by something like, ‘Your coaxial cable is, in point of fact and Canadian law, the property of your cable company. Digging it up and slicing through it, even if the sole and perfectly understandable intent is to finally get the attention of said cable television provider, could result in civil litigation.’

Or what if they start saying, ‘Dismantling your inconsiderate neighbour’s gargantuan early-’90s satellite dish, however ugly and obtrusive, could subject you to prosecution by government authorities who refuse to enforce the neighbourhood building standards code.’

How much time would that leave for the entertaining part of commercials? It could make every pitch on TV similar to those from prescription drug manufacturers who, for the last 21 seconds of a 30-second spot, are forced to recite every possible side effect known to medical science.

So my plea to the Reader’s Digests of the DM world is simply this: Knock it off with the legalese and just revert to that time-proven and equally deceptive practice of telling recipients that the piece of bulk mail they hold in their hands is ‘Personal and Confidential.’ Or, to put it into parlance that you’re more familiar with these days: cease and desist.

* * *

Thanks to all of you who identified the advertiser behind the ‘cat herders’ commercial (‘Creative not an end unto itself,’ Strategy Direct & Interactive, Sept. 11, 2000) as EDS. More about it in my November column.

Bob Knight has written a lot of direct mail packages in his day. But, trusting that postal workers will not be so interested in reading them that they will risk their jobs and personal freedom by opening them, he does not remind Canada Post employees of federal mail laws when crafting envelope teasers. Grateful post office staff and others can reach him at