DMA Reviews 21 Ethics Grievances

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On the heels of expanding ethics guidelines that target data collection and children, the Direct Marketing Association this month released its first consumer complaints report of the year.


Reviewing 21 cases, the DMA's Committee on Ethical Business Practice scrutinized grievances in four core areas -- the maintenance, use and collection of marketing data; solicitations in the guise of an invoice or governmental notification; sweepstakes and prize promotions; and general advertising issues.


Affecting the inclusion of some cases was the DMA's expansion of ethics guidelines made earlier this year. Revisions target consumer information regarding actual data use, substantial changes to a company's data policy and a company's responsibility to clarify and honor opt-out requests. Additional changes challenged children's marketing and cited parents' ability to limit the collection, use and disclosure of their children's names and the accountability of companies to "address the age range, knowledge, sophistication and maturity of their intended audience."


"We made several revisions," said Marsha Goldberger, director of ethics and consumer affairs at the DMA. "An expanded section on marketing to children should compel companies to ensure that offers for adults only do not reach children. A lot of that is being driven by the Internet and concerns about children's marketing. One of the other major areas is data collection."


Indeed, 11 cases centered on the data collection and maintenance, and another six cited general advertising issues.


"The collection, use and maintenance of data is really sensitive for us," Goldberger said. "We are really evaluating those carefully. Maybe because there is more in the media about it, more cases are coming, but as far as solicitations in the guise of, that has been going on for years."


In a continued drive to maintain self-regulation, the DMA's ethics committee, which meets about 10 times each year and includes 15 industry executives, has reviewed 50 cases since the complaint process become public last year. Of the 21 cases cited in the April report, six were against DMA members and 15 were against nonmembers. Additionally, 12 cases remain pending, and were formally resolved.


Of the 12 pending cases, two have been forwarded to federal-level agencies for more investigation. Although the complaints were separate, both issues targeted the substantiation of claims made in a direct marketing campaign.


"In one of the cases, the nature of the advertising claim made promises that were not realistic," said Goldberger, who explained that the company issued an e-mail promoting a certain level of accurate addresses for e-mail lists that could not be proven. The company responded to the committee's initial inquiries but failed to provide follow-up documentation, she said.


"They had responded by phone and said they would send a written response and would change the promotion, but they never provided additional documentation," she said. As a result, the committee, which would not disclose the company name, forwarded the complaint against the California-based company to the Federal Trade Commission.


In another case, the DMA deferred a complaint against an Atlanta-based company to the U.S. Postal Inspection Services for unsubstantiated claims regarding weight loss in a mailing that had been directed to a child. "That company never responded at all," Goldberger said.


Despite reluctance by the companies to comply to the DMA's inquiries and the report's aim to heighten industry awareness about ethics guidelines, the committee has yet to disclose the names of any companies cited in the complaint reports.


"The policy is that we may report on them but not necessarily," Goldberger said. "The committee had not approved of the names being in the report." The DMA explained in an earlier interview with <I>DM News<I>, that the objective is to resolve the issue rather than to bring industry attention to those who may be in violation of the guidelines.
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