Let's Clean It Up, Professionals

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The other day I received a promotion package from a well-respected member of the Direct Marketing Association, one whose products are world-class, who has taken leadership in the industry, and whose mailing packages are best-of-breed.


The package, however, was addressed to Dr. E.S. Prescott at my home address. This started to make me believe that the privacy people who hate direct marketing have a point. No data ever disappears. Someone somewhere can know everything about you -forever. I was very disappointed.


Dr. E.S. Prescott, my father, died in 1984. I settled his estate. Neither he nor his estate has had a credit card or bank account, subscribed to a magazine, belonged to a club, registered an automobile, had a driver's license, owned real estate, had a telephone, ordered from a catalog or made a donation since 1985.


My home address didn't even exist until 1987, and Charles Prescott didn't live there until 1992. Now, it's true that in 1998 I filed a National Change of Address entry form with the postal service to my address for my mother, Doris G. Prescott, who died in that year. But I didn't file for Dr. E.S. Prescott. (It's also true that I have registered Doris G. Prescott and every variant she ever used in her life - about eight, I think - with the DMA's Mail Preference Service. The impact from DMA member mailings was dramatic; from non-DMA members, especially nonprofits, it was pitiful. But that's another lecture.


Now someone had a necessarily old list with Dr. E.S. Prescott on it. Someone used some program that determined that an NCOA entry on "Prescott" was filed against his old address and appended the new address to his name. And no one anywhere ran a death file or deliverable names for my address.


Don't misunderstand me. I'm not upset about getting mail addressed to my father. I finished grieving long ago, and I take pleasure when something cues my many fond memories of him. In fact, he loved this company's products. (Aha! A clue!) To prove it, I'll even make some bad jokes about this company struggling a little too hard with a resuscitation mailing and mailing too deep into the list. But, I bet there are many people who hate getting mail addressed to their deceased loved ones, especially at new addresses.


Now this event suggests: 1) panic and hysteria as pulls have plummeted and/or 2) incompetence at name/list selection and/or 3) overcomplicated and ineffective name/list selection tools. Come to think of it, maybe 3) is redundant to 2). And it suggests to the paranoid that the direct marketing industry is Big Brother - finding, recording, saving and using every bit of information about us they can get their greedy little hands on.


My friends in direct marketing, there is a very hot wind blowing across the land when it comes to personal privacy, and the privacy zealots hate you. Legislators are listening to them and to our consumers more closely. We're going to see many more firefights over opt-in legislative proposals. Events like this only fuel the fire - and at some point, there will be a conflagration we won't be able to extinguish. It's not a defense to say, "We're not venal, we're just dumb."


Here's what you can do. Be careful with the NCOA file. Use death suppression files. Be reasonable with those resuscitation efforts. Keep the DMA's Privacy Promise: give notice, opt-out and run MPS. And every data processor in the land should be insistent up to one inch short of losing the customer that non-DMA members run MPS. And, save some money on wasted mailings. Because if you don't, we'll have a law like in Europe, or worse, and you wouldn't even have had the name of Dr. E.S. Prescott, or Charles Prescott, unless we had checked the "Yes" box.


Charles Prescott is international vice president of the Direct Marketing Association, New York.
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