The Enemy Within

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Those of you who are old enough to remember Walt Kelley's "Pogo Possum" comic strips in the Sunday paper will recall that the creatures who lived in that swamp had a rare gift for stating the obvious in a way that made it very memorable. My personal favorite was Pogo's classic observation, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!"

Have you noticed that it's getting harder and harder to get the consumer's attention? Do you hear an ever-increasing number of complaints that response rates are falling and the cost of making sales is rising?

There's a reason that the public at large is tuning us out. They're deluged with an average of 3,000-plus advertising impressions a day, and they're on sensory overload. Even worse, the marketing tsunami that threatens to drown them in a sea of blather is mostly irrelevant to their own needs, desires and interests.

Mass media advertising is clearly headed in a direction that substitutes volume for substance. The conventional wisdom seems to be that if you repeat the same half-truth or exaggerated claim over and over and over and over and over again, people will ultimately come to believe it. But consumers aren't buying it. The "Tivo Effect" that the general agencies are up in arms about is a monster of their own creation.

Then there's the phenomenon of "advertising as art." Try this experiment the next time you and your spouse watch TV for a couple of hours in a single night. Write down all the really "cool" TV spots you see - for example, the ones that are funny or the high-production-value spots that are visually or thematically memorable. Wait about an hour, then ask your spouse if he or she recalls those same spots, and if so, who the advertiser was. I'd bet good money that the recall of the companies that paid for those ads would be less than 15 percent.

But we can't place the blame entirely on general advertisers. Direct marketers share responsibility for creating a nation of increasingly disinterested consumers as well. We are becoming the victims of our own excesses. Some examples:

--Check your own mailbox for direct mail that shouldn't be there, such as communications sent to the previous owner of your home, mail attempting to sell you something you don't need when the sender should have access to data points that would tell them that, or messages that are clearly directed to an age group or gender that doesn't fit you. Add in the multiple copies of the same mailing you get when someone's merge purge process fails. Keep track of that for a month. You'll be surprised at how many there are.

--Then look for mailings that clearly make you believe the sender thinks you're dumb. Mailings that fall in this category are the auto dealership flyers that arrive in a brown kraft envelope with a return address of "Internal Service" and mailings that tell you that you've won either an all-expense-paid vacation to Europe, a new BMW, or an alarm clock from Wal-Mart.

--Pop-ups, pop-unders, and e-mails that come from "marketing partners" that people don't remember opting in for have become the overly intrusive norm on the interactive front. Add in banners that consumers no longer notice and you have a medium that has lost much of its utility for marketers.

What can we do about all of this? Unfortunately, not much, as individuals. It will take an industrywide focus on the problem to fix it. Fortunately, the Direct Marketing Association has given us the solution in their new tag line: Relevance. Responsibility. Results.

As professional direct marketers, we've mostly got the "responsibility" and "results" parts nailed. Now if we could just focus the entire advertising and marketing community on the "relevance" part.....ummmm..... Nah!

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