Almost everyone gets it, but does anyone really want it? Direct marketing is on the increase, and now the industry behind it is about to launch an advertising campaign of its own - to make us appreciate junk mail.
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online
In terms of missions impossible, it's up there with the campaign to market Sellafield as a tourist destination and PY Gerbeau's re-launch of the Millennium Dome.
Next month, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) will embark on an ambitious, some might say foolhardy, plan to make us value junk mail.
To call it an uphill job is something of an understatement. For years junk mail, or "direct mail" as insiders like to call it, has enjoyed all the popularity of a rabid dog.
Pushing the envelope
Almost two thirds of the public object to "direct mail", according to the Direct Mail Information Service, and 38% of us find it "intrusive".
Many of us, it seems, have learned to see through those claims of "miracle prize draws" and "0% APRs", without even opening the envelope.
Feeling snowed under?
The vast majority is ignored. Much of it - £70m worth a year - is wasted on people who have moved house.
Complaints about direct mail rocketed by 51% a couple of years ago, according to the Advertising Standards Authority.
It is widely acknowledged that the industry has an image problem, although we tend to think we receive more junk mail than we actually do.
The problem, says David Robottom of the DMA, is also that unlike TV and radio adverts which come and go within a few seconds, mailshots just linger, perched on the sideboard or the telephone table.
Another drawback, identified by advertising creative Steve Stretton, is shoddy quality.
While some TV ads are better than the programmes they interrupt, direct marketing is often "formulaic, confusing, wordy, unsophisticated crap".
THREE STEPS TO JUNK MAIL 'LOVE'
Decide whether you want to receive it or not
Recycle what you don't want
In the future, you'll be able to be more selective about what material you receive
But that could all be about to change.
Crazy as it may sound, one day we may be raving about junk mail with the enthusiasm we currently reserve for the Mash Get Smash or Shake 'n' Vac TV ads.
"Two-thirds of people either want or are not adverse to direct marketing," says Lara Shannon, who is helping launch the campaign and who takes issue with the DMIS figures quoted earlier.
"A lot of people who live in remote areas or elderly or disabled people rely on it as a way of finding out about new products and ordering them."
The idea is that we should all learn to "take control" of our junk mail; encouraging only mailshots relevant to us, and therefore it won't be junk.
For some people, "taking control" means scrubbing all unsolicited mail by registering with the Mail Preference Service.
Charities are among the big new converts to direct mail
Already 1.2 million people have signed up to the free service, which cuts their direct mail by about 95%.
Fine tuning your mailshots, so you only receive ones that interest you, is an option the DMA hopes to offer in the future.
The second strand of the advertising campaign, which ironically will rely on newspaper ads but not direct marketing itself, has an environmental message: to recycle junk mail.
Last month, the government struck a deal with the industry to reduce wastage. By the end of 2005, the target is for 30% of all direct mail to be recycled, rising to 70% by 2013.
The recycling message is seen as key to changing people's attitudes.
But even if, after all this, we really could learn to love junk mail, the chances are we won't.
That's because an increasing number of the mailshots that fall through the front door are from abroad.
In 2001, the Advertising Standards Authority inspected a typical family's direct mail over 6-8 months. Every piece of post from abroad broke UK rules, says Claire Forbes, of the ASA.
"They don't care if you've registered not to receive direct mail. And a lot of what they are selling is suspect - slimming pills, clairvoyants, prize-winning lotteries and health and beauty wonder drugs."
They come from the Philippines, Barbados, South Africa and elsewhere and, rather like junk e-mail, if you tick one box to say you exist, says Ms Forbes, "you'll get deluged".
"We've had people who are getting dustbin sack-loads of it."
A postal strike may be the best curb on junk mail
It does threaten to undermine all the image makeover work going on here, admits David Robottom.
But more immediate, he concedes, is the threat of a national postal workers' strike, voting on which started last week. It could send many small marketing firms to the wall.
But for those who find a small mountain of unwanted mail on their doorsteps every morning, a walkout could be a blessing in disguise.
Some of your comments so far:
Having worked for a world-wide agency that specialises in the production of such "targetted, consumer-specific, highly-relevant, product experience literature" ie: junk mail, I have seen the passion and care which the producers of such things have. Sadly, they're all deluded and think they're far too important.
I have been able to drastically reduce the amount of junk mail I receive by returning every bit to the sender, marked "Gone away" - if more people did this, maybe they'd get the idea.
Do what my mate Joe does - save up your junk-mail leaflets and catalogues, and when you get a mail-shot with a pre-paid envelope included, stuff it all inside and send it off to the lucky recipient.
Darren Turpin, UK
My mother died a year ago and despite requests to desist, there are some companies which, quite disgracefully, continue to send out circulars and offers.
Ever since I bought a shredder for my office, I've found junk mail to be very therapeautic. Plus it makes ideal bedding for hamsters!
Dan White, Bristol, UK
On the plus side, I suppose it keeps the post office in business!
Peter , UK
It goes straight into the recylcing bin. I get rather alarmed when I see Which? magazine use these gimmicky marketing techniques. I wholeheartedly recommend the Mail Preference Service.
I have a little rubber stamp. Cost me about a fiver. It says "NOT KNOWN AT THIS ADDRESS" in an official-looking type.
I bought it to get rid of mail from old lodgers, but it doesn't half cut down on junk mail.
Could you ever appreciate junk mail? Send your comments
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