Column: Another Bad Idea From the Consumer Press

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Spare us from consumer newspaper editors who clearly have no sales experience and no grasp of marketing's breadth, yet think they can tell the rest of us how marketing and consumer interests can live together.


Case in point: an editorial in USA Today last week calling for national legislation requiring all marketers to begin each e-mail message with "ADV" for "advertising."


"Under that system, consumers would be free to read pitches about vitamins, weight-loss programs and mortgage refinance deals. Or they could identify and delete ADV e-mails unread," the editorial said.


As is typical, USA Today cites some of the more annoying categories of direct marketing to make the point. But subscription renewal notices, for example, aren't on the list.


There is no evidence that the author or authors understand that USA Today also has a marketing arm, in fact a direct marketing arm, that might be harmed by such a badly thought-out position.


In a rebuttal, DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen contended that an ADV law would be ineffective because spammers would not comply and that an ADV label would lump DMA members' messages in with those of irresponsible marketers.


Marketers are "right to raise the question of effectiveness," the USA Today editorial said. "No single solution will solve the spam problem, including an ADV law."


Indeed, there is no evidence that a national ADV program would help stem the flood of spam.


"But a national ADV requirement would be a helpful step toward requiring all commercial e-mailers to identify themselves. Far from smearing legitimate e-mail, the ADV system would make the messages stand out as something worth reading," USA Today said.


Why do consumer protection initiatives so often include compulsory labeling?


Are we to believe that the following subject lines are hard to identify as spam or that an ADV system would change their senders' tactics? "Women: Have the Best Sex Ever," "View Photos of Singles Now," "Get Results Without Changing Your Eating Habits" and the ever-present Nigerian e-mail scam subject line "URGENT & CONFIDENTIAL."


Why not go further and require e-mail marketers to include warning labels as with tobacco and alcohol? "Warning: This message contains words known in the state of California to cause people to buy things."


Meanwhile, the effect of clearly identifying a commercial e-mail's source is playing out in the market already. A recent study by marketing services and technology provider DoubleClick Inc. identified the contents of the "from" line as the No. 1 factor determining whether an e-mail gets opened.


Not surprisingly, people will open clearly labeled messages from marketers with well-known and respected brands. People will not open messages that clearly identify the sender when the sender is not well-known or respected.


As a result, some well-known marketers reportedly are considering identifying themselves in the "subject" line as well as the "from" line to ensure recipients know who they are. Small and so-called mom-and-pop marketers are reportedly shying away from clearly identifying themselves in the "from" and "subject" lines, hoping to get people to open their messages with an offer rather than the nonexistent weight of their brand.


Add ADV to the subject line, and mom and pop might as well forget it.


Commercial e-mail's problem has nothing to do with labeling. Its troubles lie in the lack of economic governors that would normally price many of the sleazeballs out of the market. Therefore, an ADV system would accomplish nothing toward solving the spam problem, except possibly helping people sort their inboxes by subject line and mass-delete all that begin with ADV.


Anti-marketers no doubt see mass deleting of sales pitches as a positive step. However, direct marketing isn't some foreign threat, but a crucial part of the vast majority of companies, even newspapers like USA Today. An ADV system is a needless hurdle that only someone who thinks his operation is immune from it would propose.


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