We're Worrying About the Wrong Disease

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A deadly disease has infected the direct mail industry. It isn't anthrax. Or smallpox. Yet, if we give in to it, this disease can be as fatal to our industry as any biological or chemical threat cooked up by some terrorist maniac.

The disease, of course, is fear.

When Franklin Roosevelt told the country, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he was speaking to the Depression-riddled America of 1933. But his words ring just as true in the skittish atmosphere pervading today's direct marketing industry.

The purpose of terrorism is to keep us on edge, to make us feel vulnerable in many areas of our life. But if there is any aspect of terrorism that has remained consistent throughout human history, it is its 100 percent failure rate. That's right. To date, there has been no instance of an act of terrorism toppling a government or forcing a single policy change to meet terrorist demands.

Even in countries like Ireland and Israel, where the threat of terrorist activity is a daily fact of life, people continue to work, play and carry on with their business. They are more careful, more aware. But terrorism, even when it has gone on for decades, has never brought a country to its knees.

It's not going to happen here, either. Unless we allow it. America has not given in to terrorism. Neither should direct marketers.

The U.S. Postal Service delivers 600 million pieces of mail every day. It would be all but impossible for a handful of fanatics to effectively undermine an industry that does that kind of volume.

In his 17-year reign of terror, Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, did cause the postal service to institute new safety practices to protect the public from letter bombs. And new procedures no doubt will be implemented to help protect the public from biological and chemical hazards.

But throughout the Unabomber years, did people stop opening their mail? Are they refusing to open their mail now? Of course not.

That's why one can't help but be angry and offended when an august publication like The Wall Street Journal knuckles under to the hysteria of the moment, as it did in articles on Oct. 16 and 17. In the Oct. 16 piece ("Marketers Get New Rules for Direct Mail"), the Journal credits a former direct mail marketing director with the following claim: "In theory, a terrorist with enough money and expertise could prepare phony junk mail and send it to a large audience."

In theory, just about anything is possible. The Pittsburgh Pirates could come back and take the pennant next year. A giant asteroid could crash into the Earth and render everything else meaningless.

Direct mail is a $500 billion-plus industry. Millions and millions of pieces of commercial mail are sent to American homes and businesses every year. And to date, we know of only a few letters tainted with anthrax that have been sent through the mail.

There have always been horrors and rumors of horror that have thrown the population into a temporary panic. In the first days after Sept. 11, pundits speculated that it would take months before people would be willing to fly again. It took days.

Direct mail is not the first industry that many so-called experts have written off after an act of terrorism. Does the name Tylenol ring a bell?

Still, at the moment of this writing, we are all gravely -- and justifiably -- concerned about the effects of terrorism on America and on our industry. So how do we, as direct marketers, respond to the evil and terrifying acts we are witnessing?

The answer is simple: We remain good, active, involved American citizens. We behave responsibly, with courage and integrity. We take care of our clients, secure in the knowledge that direct mail remains the most targeted, measurable and accountable form of advertising we know.

And, above all, we do not let ourselves be conquered by fear.

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