What's Next? A Do-Not-Mail List?

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I've been saying it for years. If we don't regulate ourselves, we'll be regulated by the government. "No way," the industry said. "It'll never come to that."


Well, consumers have complained about telemarketing calls for years. The industry refused to regulate itself. So the government has stepped in and created a national do-not-call list. And consumers have signed up by the millions. Now all the telemarketers are boo-hooing about the potential loss of business and jobs. But is anyone sympathetic? Nope.


People have complained about e-mail for a long time, too. Naturally, the industry refuses to regulate itself. So now legislators are proposing a do-not-spam list. What's next? A do-not-mail list? Don't say it can't happen. When you mix an apathetic industry with angry consumers and ambitious politicians, anything is possible.


I started thinking about this crazy idea for a do-not-mail list recently when my wife received one of those deceptive check mailings. You know the type ... an official-looking check that, when cashed, authorizes a monthly charge for a membership or service of questionable value.


We get tricky offers like this in the mail all the time. So do you. So do millions of other consumers. All it's going to take is a critical mass of media attention at the right time to encourage some energetic politician to crank up the voltage and bring this "do-not-mail" monster to life.


We all know how to conduct ourselves. The Direct Marketing Association's Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice lay out the basic rules clearly. And here's a little refresher on the ones I see violated most often:


Article 1 - Honesty and clarity of offer: All offers should be clear, honest and complete so that the consumer may know the exact nature of what is being offered, the price, the terms of payment (including all extra charges) and the commitment involved in the placing of an order.


Before publication of an offer, marketers should be prepared to substantiate any claims or offers made. Advertisements or specific claims that are untrue, misleading, deceptive or fraudulent should not be used.


Article 2 - Accuracy and consistency: Simple and consistent statements or representations of all the essential points of the offer should appear in the promotional material. The overall impression of an offer should not be contradicted by individual statements, representations or disclaimers.


Article 3 - Clarity of representations: Representations which, by their size, placement, duration or other characteristics are unlikely to be noticed or are difficult to understand should not be used if they are material to the offer.


Article 4 - Actual conditions: All descriptions, promises and claims of limitation should be in accordance with actual conditions, situations and circumstances existing at the time of the promotion.


Article 10 - Solicitation in the guise of an invoice or governmental notification: Offers that are likely to be mistaken for bills, invoices, or notices from public utilities or governmental agencies should not be used.


Article 11 - Postage, shipping or handling charges: Postage, shipping or handling charges, if any, should bear a reasonable relationship to actual costs incurred.


Article 17 - Use of the word "FREE" and other similar representations: A product or service that is offered without cost or obligation to the recipient may be unqualifiedly described as "free." If a product or service is offered as "free," all qualifications and conditions should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, in close conjunction with the use of the term "free" or other similar phrase.


When the term "free" or other similar representations are made (for example, 2-for-1, half-price or 1-cent offers), the product or service required to be purchased should not have been increased in price or decreased in quality or quantity.


Article 21 - Testimonials and endorsements: Testimonials and endorsements should be used only if they are: a) Authorized by the person quoted; b) Genuine and related to the experience of the person giving them both at the time made and at the time of the promotion; and c) Not taken out of context so as to distort the endorser's opinion or experience with the product.


These guidelines aren't just for mail, of course. They apply to every form of direct response advertising. But, in my opinion, direct mail has always been the heart of the direct marketing industry. Even the merest chance of a remote possibility that something this crazy could happen should scare you silly. If they can go after faxes, and calls, and e-mail, what's to stop them from going after direct mail?


After all, resorting to unethical practices simply means you're either out of selling ideas or people don't want what you're selling. If it takes trickery to sell your products and services, you need better advertising or better products and services!


Do you want to know the best way to boost response? Make a great offer for a great product. Of course, if that's too hard, you can just keep tricking people into buying junk. And the rest of us can just keep winking at each other when we see this going on.


Just don't start whining when there's a headline across the front page of DM News that says, "Do-Not-Mail List Enacted."


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