The direct marketing industry needs to act - now

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This could be 1997, 1987 or 1977, but it's 2007 and yet the mainstream media reports from the same old material: that the direct marketing industry is not above board.

All it took this time was an article in the May 20 New York Times on how elderly consumers were being scammed by telemarketers, banks and a data supplier to convince even a presidential hopeful to toss his hat into the debate. Let's condemn those perpetuating such crimes on the vulnerable, but let's also look within to see what direct marketers can do in terms of self-policing and consumer education.

Start right from the basics. No need to mince words: we call it direct mail; consumers call it junk mail. We call it e-mail, but to consumers it's spam. We call them customer service representatives, but to the world they're telemarketers. We know them as direct response television ads; consumers prefer to say infomercials with a smirk thrown in.

So the battle for the terminology is lost. And it's not just consumers. Pick up any mainstream magazine or newspaper, view television news shows, listen to radio broadcasts: any reference to direct marketing is derisory, condescending and mocking.

Who's to blame for this state of affairs? It's easy to pin this malaise on the unscrupulous among the direct marketing industry and those that skirt the edge of legality. But that ignores the larger issue. Has this industry done enough to police itself? The trade associations will surely protest and say yes and point to the breadcrumbs as evidence. If this was another industry - oil, pharmaceutical, automotive - you'd have ardent reminders in the press - ads, editorial, blogs - of the value that sector provides to the consumer and the economy.

In this case, the Direct Marketing Association and the American Teleservices Association have chimed in. However, they certainly can do more and open a dialogue with the mainstream press, influential politicians and, most importantly, with the general consumer. Help these constituencies make the connection between the targeted mail and e-mail they receive and the jobs they hold.

onnect the dots between direct marketing and commerce to the economy's well-being. Talk about jobs generated at printing plants, ad agencies, automakers, telephone companies, retailers and media - employers in the millions of consumers.

Politicians may be harder to convince since marketing is low-hanging fruit for them. Technology is enabling consumers to control electronic access to ads and laws like do-not-call have not helped the industry. Those running for office will always secure an exemption for themselves in the name of freedom of speech. So politicians - with their franking privileges - can mail you endlessly for cash requests, they can leave recorded messages on your phone, they can demand discounts from broadcasters for using public airwaves. It's time the direct marketing industry exposes this hypocrisy, purges itself of the charlatans and begins a real campaign to educate the average American that marketing is the lubricant necessary to keep the gears of this economy going.

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