Watchdog Groups Accuse USPS of Deceptive Ads

An ad campaign for the U.S. Postal Service's Priority Mail service misleads consumers, two watchdog organizations say.

The advertising campaign, ongoing since mid-February, markets Priority Mail as a reliable two-day delivery service. A disclaimer that appears for a few seconds in television ads and at the bottom of print ads states that “delivery times may vary depending on destination.”

Citizens Against Government Waste and PostalWatch say that Priority Mail service is no quicker than the much cheaper First-Class mail.

“In reality, the USPS' Priority Mail product fails to deliver on its promise of reliable two-day delivery in a significant percentage of cases,” CAGW vice president Leslie Paige said. “The USPS itself admits that it was only able to deliver Priority Mail within the promised two days 82.4 percent of the time, and that rate was only achieved in the first quarter of 2003.”

In the same quarter of 2002, on-time delivery scores for this service were 63.5 percent, Paige said, so “consumers would be better off mailing an important document using First-Class mail.”

A First-Class stamp costs 37 cents while it costs $3.85 to mail a Priority Mail Flat Rate envelope.

“Comparable industry standards for two-day delivery are between 90 and 97 percent,” Paige said. “The USPS should have to comply with the same advertising standards as any private company.”

CAGW sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission this month asking it to investigate whether the USPS can be penalized for violating truth-in-advertising laws. An FTC spokeswoman confirmed the agency was reviewing the letter.

PostalWatch released a study this month accusing the USPS of massive deceptive advertising in its Priority Mail campaign.

“The ads misrepresent Priority Mail as a low-cost, two-day service while failing to disclose that First-Class letters, at nearly one-tenth the cost, generally arrive at their destination just as soon, if not sooner, than do Priority Mail letters,” PostalWatch executive director Rick Merritt said.

The study said that 45 percent of First-Class letters reach their destination within one day compared with 26.6 percent of Priority Mail, and that less than 73 percent of Priority Mail sent in the past five quarters arrived within two days.

The postal service rebuts the charges.

“The study is using data deceptively,” USPS spokeswoman Monica Hand said.

For example, she said, PostalWatch used Origin Destination Information System data, which is “an internal tool used to show mail volume flows from post office to post office. It does not measure delivery, and it is not used to measure service because it is not precise.

“We use an independent third party to measure end-to-end delivery of Priority Mail,” she said. “We look at the information, which is usually trended quarterly, and the recent reports show that two-day delivery service is within the industry standard, which is between 90 percent and 97 percent.”

Also, Hand said, comparing Priority Mail ODIS data with First-Class Mail ODIS data could be misleading because “on average, Priority Mail pieces travel longer distances than First-Class Mail pieces. And for any class of mail, the higher percentage of local pieces, the lower the average delivery time.

“Bottom line, we think that Priority Mail is a reliable two-to-three-day delivery service,” she said. “You can compare it to other two-day services.”

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