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Don't Call Us—Even If You're Not Selling

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With millions of Americans flocking to add their names to the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry, consumers are clearly relishing their newfound power to stop phone solicitations. And they want the rules extended beyond telemarketers to halt spam e-mailers, politicians and even religious groups, according to a new survey from research firm InsightExpress.

In an online poll of 300 Americans conducted June 27-29, the week DoNotCall.gov was created, 88 percent of respondents said all telemarketing companies should be governed by the registry. More than eight out of 10 also said they want a government-initiated anti-junk-e-mail registry established.

In addition, about two-thirds of those polled said they want to override the FTC's exemptions for groups calling from political organizations, and a similar proportion said the same about religions groups. A majority of 55 percent don't want to hear from charities, either.

Slightly fewer than half of the respondents said they would welcome a halt in telephone surveys and polling. And even though FTC rules allow companies to contact individuals who are on the list if they have done business with them during the preceding 18 months, four in 10 respondents said they want to see even those sales pitches banned.

By last Wednesday morning, more than 15 million people had registered their phone numbers at DoNotCall.gov. The registry is designed to block unwanted sales calls, with exemptions for political and charity fundraising solicitations, which not fall into the FTC's definition of "commerce." Companies face up to $11,000 in fines per violation.

"There's been a need for this for a long time," said Doug Adams, director of marketing at InsightExpress in Stamford, Conn. But he cautioned that there are drawbacks for consumers: A big one is that legitimate, even attractive phone offers will be netted along with the junk. "It's by no means a cure-all," Adams said.

The telemarketing industry is preparing a counterattack. Tim Searcy, executive director of the American Teleservices Association, a trade group that represents 650 telemarketers, said the ATA sued the FTC last week in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleging violation of free speech.

"No date has been set, but we expect that there will be a court hearing either at the end of the month or in early August," Searcy said. "This is going to throw 2 million people out of work from an industry that employs 6.5 million. Aside from the free-speech issue, this is about saving an important part of the nation's economy."

Telemarketing sales totaled $80 billion last year, according to the Direct Marketing Association and the ATA.

The industries that rely most on telemarketing to get the message out, according to the DMA, include education ($2.1 billion), real estate ($1.8 billion), banking ($1.8 billion) and insurance ($1.7 billion).

"For many of these industries who have marketing budgets, they are going to re-examine what part of the mix telemarketing should be," said Louis Mastria, a representative for the DMA. "Despite all the cries about telemarketing as an annoyance, in the last 12 months, 66 million separate individuals made a telephone marketing purchase and put billions of dollars into a feeble economy."

In the meantime, many in the agency business are predicting a shift from phone calling to other forms of direct marketing, such as mailings and interactive connections. "Companies are still going to have to reach consumers directly, so with telemarketing as an option constrained, other methods will flourish," said John McNamara, CEO of Halogen, the direct unit of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group.

Carla Hendra, president of WPP Group's OgilvyOne, the New York-based direct response unit of Ogilvy & Mather, agreed, noting that nearly all direct clients use telemarketers, so a shift in dollars is likely. But she welcomed the arrival of the registry.

"First of all, we've had a similar set of rules for direct mail for years," she said, pointing to the DMA-operated list consumers can join to avoid certain types of junk mail. "I believe this is all positive. For any marketer, there's nothing terrible about being nonintrusive and uninterruptive on the telephone. The more that we have people who actually like to be spoken to, the higher quality of the response marketers will get."

Still, there is concern that other marketing channels may not fill the void left by telemarketing. "When someone gets a lower mortgage or a lower-rate credit card, that's not an unwanted call," said an executive at a national bank that relies heavily on telemarketing. "What this rule does is throw the good out with the bad. When a bank or another lender has a special deal for consumers, it's not possible to do a television and radio ad; it just wouldn't work.

"But this is not going to hurt banks; it's going to hurt consumers," the source added. "Many will have no way of knowing about these special offers. They only know about them because they listened when they were contacted."

And the telemarketers themselves continue to argue that people can turn off the ringer or leave the phone off the hook if they find sales calls so obtrusive. "I'm not going to argue that some calls aren't an inconvenience, but the average household makes three purchases in response to a [telemarketer's] outbound call every year," Searcy said. "If it wasn't working, we wouldn't be doing it."