Stage Fright

Junk mail now gets mentioned at cocktail parties. Thanks, Osama. Those of us in direct mail, that quintessential under-the-radar marketing channel, don’t mind being regarded as the bottom of the advertising food chain. We enjoy our special status. Now we are blinking in disbelief at the sudden glare of publicity. We feel violated. We’ve been outed.

Nobody thinks we are hip, cool or culture-changing. We don’t get people to say “Whassup?” Instead, we pride ourselves on stealth. Our competitors have trouble figuring out who we’re targeting and with what messages. They are hard-pressed to determine our budgets and our market share. And we plan to keep it that way.

When the responses are tabulated, we quietly congratulate ourselves for enticing consumers to get involved with—and buy from—a letter they would absolutely deny even opening.

Then came Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare, rocking our private world. Suddenly, every newspaper and marketing publication wants a piece of us. And people now fear us—on top of the usual loathing!

Instead of sorting their mail over the trash, people are wearing gloves and a mask and sorting their mail over the trash. Some are even following The New Yorker’s example and not opening any mail at all.

Not good.

Thankfully, the Direct Marketing Association is reporting that con sumer mail responses are down slightly but basically tracking at pre-Sept. 11 rates. Whew!

All this attention is disturbing. Because I love direct marketing. I got hooked about 10 years ago, the day I received a letter in a plain envelope from the Wall Street Journal.

“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, 25 years ago,” it read, “two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better-than-average students, both were personable and both—as young college graduates are—were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

“Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.

“They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern service company after graduation, and were still there.

“But there was a difference.”

I was riveted. And flattered to have been pegged a Wall Street Journal-reading type. Apparently, so are thousands of other WSJ subscribers who claim they don’t open their junk mail. What a great piece of writing.

A direct mail piece is like a prizefighter—as long as it’s still standing, it gets to stay in the ring as other mailings go out to “challenge” it. I first got the WSJ letter 10 years ago; I got it again last week. What a career it’s had! It should be winning lifetime achievement awards, the Grand Effie, the Best of Show at Cannes!

Americans, thank goodness, are an amazingly unruffled group. Which is good for me, since I’ve been looking forward to a long career of beating those smartly written letters that generate millions of dollars for American businesses.

We’re anxious to get back under the radar. Being wallflowers at cocktail parties suited us just fine.