The NYT interviews Michael Critelli, head of Pitney Bowes, who disputes claims that direct (snail) mail harms the environment, annoys consumers, kills kittens, and is otherwise bad. There’s a mix of ham and spam in his claims. For example, it’s not shocking that the direct marketing industry has long been a fan of “informed consumer choice.” That’s why the federal anti-spam act is opt-out: you have to notify senders that you don’t want to receive unsolicited messages (potentially at the cost of notifying spammers that they’ve found a live address). It’s always helpful to be a skeptic when an industry’s view of the public good magically coincides with its profit motive. Note, also, the description of the Direct Marketing Association’s registry: it’s for mail preferences and lets folks avoid “a lot of the mail they don’t want to receive.” That’s a pretty lawyerly statement, no? “Choice” here means “choosing to let us know what junk mail you don’t want.” Until then, they’ll helpfully assume you’re interested in everything.
Second, the claim that shifting to e-mail marketing would harm the environment – you know, all those servers and data centers – is laughable. First, snail mail and e-mail marketing increasingly target separate market niches – the former is particularly important for folks who don’t go on-line or have slow-speed connections. Second, while spam overall constitutes a large share of e-mail traffic, the marginal increase from this shift would not significantly affect costs. (Legitimate mail gets stored more often, as long as spam filters are well-working, but spam transport requests swamp legit messages.) And the cost of spam filters is pretty low: there are free software programs, and free Webmail services such as Gmail and Hotmail do a good job. If spam constitutes 90% of e-mail traffic (put aside the software industry self-interest in that stat), then doubling legitimate e-mail would only increase traffic about 10%. Hardly burdensome.
But I do agree with Critelli about how consumers actually behave. Let’s be plain: I am the problem here. When I first moved to Michigan in 2006, I had no idea how to find a dentist. Most of the recommendations I got were in Ann Arbor, and I lived a half-hour away from there. So how did I pick someone to make me feel guilty about not flossing? I got a solicitation in the mail. The dentist was covered by my dental plan; his dental assistants were very nice; and he was up-to-date on the newest tech and research. In my case, though, direct mail spam worked. And I think my experience is typical. I may not request the catalog, but I will still order from it. Unsolicited information can be valuable to consumers, and unsolicited advertising can be effective. I’ve long argued this is the real challenge of spam: not its cost structure, not defining consent or opt-in / opt-out, but the fact that it works often enough to make spamming viable financially.
So, I’ll still recycle most of the flyers and catalogs that I get here in Brooklyn, but if someone wants to send me stuff on the latest and greatest computer parts or SCUBA gear – even unasked-for – it’s possible I’ll give it a read.