Column: Fine, Keep Your Head Down; See You at Unemployment

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ASPEN, CO -- "I'm getting the serious impression that this industry is asleep at the switch," said a direct marketer at Donnelley Marketing's third annual Consumer Privacy Conference after listening to the keynote address of DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen.

No kidding.

With 50 privacy bills pending in Congress; the FTC's no-call registry set to take effect in October and having received 28.7 million numbers in a month; the Fair Credit Reporting Act set to expire Jan. 1 and states preparing to write their own rules; Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, pushing for a do-not-e-mail registry; and the Washington-based Center for a New American Dream calling on Congress for a do-not-mail registry, Wientzen drew a picture of an industry being sniped at from all sides.

And you know what? The industry deserves it. DMers skulk around, either keeping quiet about what they do or apologizing for it. It's time for the guilt trip to end.

The Direct Marketing Association is on top of every piece of potentially damaging piece of legislation in Congress, and should be applauded for that. But the reason these stupid bills pop up in the first place is that direct marketing is such a mile-wide vote-getting target for legislators.

"Who's destroying your family time, trees AND the Internet? Direct marketers!! I say let's hang 'em!"

Meanwhile, how many jobs does this industry create? And how many people won't realize the American dream if the dolts at the Center for a New American Dream get their way?

Also, how much lower is my mortgage because financial institutions have access to information that helps them weed out deadbeats who would default and drive up the cost of my loan?

And how has the free flow of information kept our economy thumping along while Europe snidely enacts marketing-unfriendly opt-in laws helping sustain the worst three-year low-growth rut in a decade?

And save the "we're still struggling" crap. If we're struggling, it's only by spoiled-brat 1999 standards.

Wientzen said the DMA doesn't do more public outreach because a PR firm determined that any message the DMA could take to the public would be defensive.

If Saudi Arabia can find a PR firm to put a positive spin on its terrorist-infested culture, direct marketing can find one to help its image.

A DM News reader who asked to remain anonymous rightly notes that the DMA should consider targeting conservatives.

"The most astounding part of the current witch hunt on direct marketing is that it's happening under Republican-dominated executive and legislative branches," the reader said.

Meanwhile, infoUSA CEO Vin Gupta was right when he said, "We have to tell the press our side of the story."

Moreover, there are many positive messages direct marketers could take to consumers. For catalogers, how about something as simple as a box stuffer that says, "This order was packed by one of 234 employees who have jobs because of your business. And they all say, 'Thank you.' "

How's that for a DM warm fuzzy?

The industry also could steal some of the Federal Trade Commission's thunder during the holidays by explaining the FTC's mail-order rule requiring that sellers ship orders within the time stated in their ads or, if no time is stated, within 30 days.

And rather than burying their privacy policies and writing them in legalese, marketers could direct customers to them and explain exactly what happens with their so-called personal information. They might even think about concluding with a paragraph along the lines of: "We're able to lower the cost of delivering our goods or services to you by X percent because of list rental revenue. We also understand that you may not want to be contacted by other marketers. Either way, the choice is yours. Thank you for your business."

Would someone please tell me what's so friggin' hard about that?

Another idea: Let customers view their file. Better yet, give them an option to delete it. Very few will exercise the delete option, but the resulting boost in trust and loyalty would be astronomical.

The only reason privacy advocates get any play in the press is that so many consumer reporters are ignorant wannabe consumer advocates, and this industry plays right into their hands. How many daily newspaper reporters who happily filed pieces on the FTC's no-call list were ignorant of how much their employers rely on telemarketing for subscription drives? Could it be, ALL OF THEM? And whose fault is that? Not theirs.

This industry must emerge from its bunker.

And as Wientzen rightly noted, executives who think their company's marketing-information practices wouldn't stand up to television-reporter scrutiny should fix them.

Start talking, guys. And don't wait for the DMA to do it for you.

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