AARP Up in Arms over Postal Penalty

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The American Association of Retired Persons, Washington, DC, filed an appeal late last month in response to a $3 million deficiency notice given to them by the U.S. Postal Service's revenue assurance department for having the word "catalog" appear in one of its periodical publications.


The publication in question is the November/December 1998 issue of Modern Maturity. In June the revenue assurance department issued the notice, shortly after that the AARP asked for an extension of 30 days in order to respond, and last month it did so with an appeal.


According to Joan Wise, general counsel for the AARP, the issue in question was dedicated entirely to technology and computers. In the center of the periodical there is a two-page spread entitled "Techie Catalog" containing reviews of hand-held computer products. The U.S. Postal Service is describing the two pages as an advertising insert, and under postal regulations inserts in periodicals can not contain any characteristics of commercial catalogs.


A spokesman for the AARP said it does not receive revenue from the sale of any of the products featured in the section or advertising dollars from the companies who produce the featured products.


Modern Maturity, a bimonthly publication made up of two-thirds editorial content and one-third advertising content, goes out to 20 million AARP members, and the U.S. Postal Service is charging the AARP 15 cents per "catalog," Wise said.


"We are happy to follow the rules, but ones like this are less than clear," Wise said. "There is no definition of what catalog is intended to mean. They just say we can not use the word."


Wise also said that the two-page section is not a pullout or insert and is in fact part of the periodical, like every other page.


On the two pages six different products are reviewed and described. That information is followed by a price listing of the product, a toll-free number for the company, along with the company's Web address.


Neal Denton, the executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, said the U.S. Postal Service should have called the two-page spread a buyer's guide -- not a catalog -- due to the fact that the AARP is not receiving any money from the sales of those products, or advertising dollars from the companies whose products they are profiling.


"This is an ugly situation where the rule does not apply to the AARP," Denton said. "It is not a one size fits all situation. They did that section to educate their members to the advantages and disadvantages of the products that are out there. They are not getting a dime from this."


U.S. Postal Service officials did not return phone calls.
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