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Adopt Consumer-Friendly Policy or Face Consequences, Wientzen Says

NEW YORK — H. Robert Wientzen, who retires this year as president/CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, warned attendees yesterday at the DMA/AIM net.marketing show that the sins of a few will hurt the majority if the industry fails to unite behind a consumer-friendly voice.

Online and e-mail marketers risk sharing the fate of sweepstakes users and outbound telemarketers, whose practices were “dramatically constricted” after years of consumer complaints and negative stories in the media, he said.

“Are you taking policymakers' complaints for the potential threats that they might be?” Wientzen asked the audience. “Do you follow our ethical guidelines to the letter? Are you helping to identify and eliminate industry-threatening practices by others? And, most importantly, are you listening to your customers?

“Folks, this is the big one,” he said. “I bet there's not a person in this room who wouldn't agree that today's consumer is, thanks largely to the Internet, more informed and, consequently, more in control. We all say that, and yet I don't really think enough marketers act like that's the case.”

Posting consumer protection policies in legalese somewhere on the Web site no longer will do, he said. He hoped instead that consumer protection was ingrained in the company's culture. Otherwise, the company is part of the problem, eventually triggering government regulation of online, e-mail and data-usage practices.

Of course, companies often have to make short-term business decisions to compete in the marketplace and serve the bottom line. But such decision-making can bring serious political ramifications that do not serve the bottom line.

“We cannot — in fact, we must not — forget that we're in a new political environment,” Wientzen said. “As you know, policymakers seem more inclined to take action in the privacy area. After all, politicians — in Washington and the states, Republicans and Democrats — know that they're onto something that the public and the press are very responsive to. So, I believe they'll continue to step in and regulate as long as there are matters that we, as an industry, don't address expeditiously and thoroughly.”

There is much at stake. According to a DMA study released yesterday, 19 percent of 209 million American adults in the prior 12 months made a purchase in response to an e-mail, solicited and unsolicited. The same study also found that nearly 40 million people, on average, made 6.5 purchases in the same 12-month period.

“Now, those numbers are, I think, very encouraging,” Wientzen said. “Clearly, there's a flipside, and you know what it is — spam.”

He said the DMA and its Association for Interactive Marketing arm was doing all it could to combat spam and promote responsible e-mail marketing. They support legislation, technology, consumer education and law enforcement of current consumer protection laws.

The DMA also was a big supporter of the CAN-SPAM Act, which, from Jan. 1, preempts a rash of anti-spam measures passed recently by 36 states.

Online marketers, however, should move more aggressively on the self-regulatory front, Wientzen said. They should seriously consider more transparency with information usage practices and calls for disclosure of data shared.

Wientzen said the DMA, AIM and the Internet Alliance will continue to support and represent the interests of online and direct marketers.

“Our job,” he said, “will continue to be to preserve the right of reputable marketers to do business in ways that are legal, that are fair, consumer-friendly and, of course, profitable. Toward that end, we'll continue to do everything to guard against unwelcome, uninformed and unbalanced policymaking.”

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