Writing Junk Mail. Somebody has to do it.

I’ve always considered “sportswriter” the lowest possible station for people who make their living with the written word. However, as a professional whose efforts live and die by the judgement of the marketplace, which judgement I accept as gospel, I may well occupy a spot south of sportswriter. Dinner party introductions are always tough for me. Especially when people ask what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer.” I proudly declare.

And, for a moment, they are impressed. Excited that they may be in the presence of an erudite novelist, hard-nosed journalist, or maybe even a sportswriter, they invariably ask, “What do you write?”

Depending on my mood, I may make some attempts to deliver a primer on targeted direct marketing, one-to-one communication, and customer relationship development. However, often in such situations there is only one way to quickly describe my profession in terms that anyone will understand.

“Direct mail advertising. I write direct mail for a living.”

“Oh…you’re the guy.”

“Yeah, I’m the guy.”

“Well, I guess somebody has to do it.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I never open any of that crap. Junk mail goes straight into the trash.”

Well, of course he never opens junk mail. He only opens the things that are relevant to his interests, needs, and lifestyle. Of course, that stuff is, by definition, not junk mail. It’s interesting mail. Provided I’m well rested and in a good mood, I’ll enlighten my new friend with a primer on targeting, relevance, the importance of the list in the direct marketing mix, and basic math regarding profitability.

However, most of the time I just say, “Yeah, you and most other people toss it. Isn’t this spinach dip great?”

“It is good. Hey, speaking of ads, don’t you love those cavemen?”

This is maddening. Painstakingly and scientifically craft hundreds of words into a direct mail package offering a beneficial product or service that enriches the lives of people across the nation while outperforming your client’s previous best effort by a precisely measured 120 percent and, at a random dinner party, you’re the pronoun in “Somebody has to do it.” Work a caveman into 30-second insurance spot and you’re treated like an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. Yes, even our haughty, slacker cousins in the general advertising field enjoy a classier brand image than the buttoned-down, academic word-engineers known as direct marketing copywriters. It just doesn’t seem right.

However, some recent irresponsible efforts perpetrated by our general advertising brethren may work to change that perception. I’m talking about the recent multi-city promotion for The Cartoon Network’s line of programming referred to as “Adult Swim” and Cadbury-Schweppes’ “treasure hunt” promotion for Dr. Pepper.

You may recall that Boston, already plagued with commuting headaches, was virtually shut down in January when several suspicious electronic devices were discovered near bridges and overpasses. I still don’t understand exactly how these lighted devices, which featured some kind of “moon man” waving a middle finger, were going to increase the number of people tuning into The Cartoon Network. Maybe it’s just my overexposure to the more pragmatic sides of advertising, but I can’t imagine the client meeting where I would suggest planting a bird-flipping Lite-Brite near some major public roadsides as the best available option for achieving the stated marketing objective. I especially can’t imagine the part where the client says, “Make it happen.”

And just where is the client in all this? Turner Broadcasting, which owns The Cartoon Network, has issued some general statements starting with, “Turner Broadcasting regrets…”

Sorry guys but that’s not good enough. An executive figure from the corporation needs to stand up and say, “I’m sorry about this, it was a mistake, and the appropriate people will be fired. Additionally, we will reimburse the city of Boston and all other affected municipalities for their trouble.”

I doubt we’ll hear much more about this. Great big companies and their general agencies suffer from accountabilitiphobia and they were watching the first newscasts about the suspicious devices from the comfort of the tall grass.

Ultimately, the stunt was dismissed by Turner as a component of a “third-party advertising campaign run by a New York advertising agency.” Third party? Again, maybe it’s my overexposure to the more disciplined side of advertising, but I’m not familiar with any kind of advertising campaign, third-party or other, that is launched without the full knowledge and approval of the client.

I’m actually a fan of The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup. It features some very original entertainment you just won’t see elsewhere on TV and I was sad to see such poor thinking on the part of their marketing department. Wouldn’t it have been better to run a spot that drove existing viewers like me to a Web site that gathered some referrals? Thank the first 50 or 100 or 500 responders with a bird-flipping Lite-Brite (if you must). Then target some kind of interactive contest to the prospective viewers. I suppose something like that just isn’t “cutting edge” enough. And if your marketing objective is to be “cutting edge” rather than garnering viewers, then I guess you’re better off going with the suspicious devices. Good luck with variable costs.

Then, as if Boston didn’t have enough trouble already, Cadbury-Schweppes came along in February with a promotion that urged consumers to embark on a treasure hunt to find a coin that could be worth one million dollars. One of these coins was hidden in the historic Granary Burying Ground in Boston – the final resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, Mother Goose, and the parents of our first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin.

That’s right. Somewhere along the line, somebody thought, “That’s it! Desecrating an historic American cemetery is the perfect way to move some soda.” Cadbury-Schweppes did apologize and handled the aftermath relatively well…but there should not have been an aftermath to manage in the first place.

So I’m feeling particularly proud of my profession these days. I mean, unless a postal truck is involved in an accident, none of my direct mail packages will shut down a single public thoroughfare. And I guarantee that none of my packages will desecrate a single prominent American’s grave. One of them might, however, ensure that the loved ones he leaves behind are taken care of with a quality term life insurance policy at an affordable fixed rate that never goes up.

Somebody has to do it. Right?

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