Let's be direct about it: Junk mail sucks

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Best is yet to come ... if marketers build it
Best is yet to come ... if marketers build it

Direct marketers still spend more time than they like trying to prove to the rest of us that their industry is not populated solely by junk mailers and cheesy infomercial pitches. They have a good case. It can easily be argued, and has, that all marketing in the digital age is direct marketing. Technology has eliminated barriers to one-to-one communications, databases have significantly improved marketing message targeting, and 
accountability is the new black.

As a marketing executive, 
the logic makes sense to me — 
elevating the role of direct marketing in the mix. As a consumer, I have a question, and I'll be blunt (and brace myself for angry reader e-mails and letters): Why does so much of what we've traditionally defined as direct marketing suck?

Most pieces of direct mail are poorly designed, off-target messages easily separated into a trash pile without a second glance. Some of these mailbox missives move past irrelevance and inch close to the border of sleazy, trying to appear "official" or as a "last notice" that can't 
be ignored. 

A plain white envelope this week implored me to "See inside for an important message regarding your service," but opening only confirmed my suspicion and reinforced my aversion. It was a competing cable provider asking me to switch my service. When I am tricked into opening one of those envelopes, the trash pile isn't good enough. They must face my wrath as I tear them into pieces and sprinkle them with curses before sending them down the garbage chute.

Commercial radio causes my blood to boil even more quickly than mail, making me less and less likely to tune in. On those increasingly rare occasions when I move from satellite radio to the FM or AM dial — typically in search of local news or a sports score — I am quickly driven away by the first commercial break. Call-to-action radio spots treat listeners as idiots. The scripts are awful and the voiceover "acting" is worse. The endless repetitions of phone numbers and Web addresses are nothing short of maddening. 

DRTV? Face it — most of it is insulting drivel with the production values of a middle school holiday sing-along. I know, I know, a lot of it works. I'm sure there exist volumes of research that prove how much more effective it is when a phone number is yelled out four times versus three. 

Early in my career, I criticized — okay, mocked —a particularly awful back cover of a Sunday supplement magazine. The ad was for garishly colored stretchy-waistband pants, three for the price of one. A savvy 
colleague quickly pointed out how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to run a single page in that magazine. Then he reminded me that direct marketers are masters at tracking results and wouldn't return week after week unless the ad was paying off.

As a former publisher, I know how a magazine subscription come-on that appears to be an invoice will get measurably higher response rates than one that merely pitches the benefits of subscribing. 

But do the ends justify the means? Results and ROI may be the holy grails of marketing, but that doesn't excuse the lack of respect for consumers evidenced in these examples.

Ads have an obligation to their audiences, as well as their funders: to inform, educate, entertain. This is true for storytelling across all platforms, a truth that becomes more unavoidable as ads themselves become more avoidable. Traditional direct marketers owe us more. If they accept and confront that challenge, direct marketing in all its forms will truly be elevated.

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