The Choice of Choice is Still Elusive

One thing I hate about postal mail is the inability to remove yourself from advertising mailing lists.  One of the most frustrating things about this mail stream is often you  have no idea how you got on their list in the first place!

Over the years, I have undoubtedly been placed numerous mailing lists for print advertising mail.  Most times, when I’ve contacted a mailer and asked, the companies have been unable to identify the source of how my information came to them.  In many cases it takes them extended time – over a few months – to finally remove me from their systems.  There are clearly inefficiencies in the printing and database management systems of the offline world of marketing.

I’m pretty frustrated, but I’m not yet suggesting that we should outright ban postal advertising.  I’m not saying that I hate ALL postal advertising.  I’m not saying that all postal marketing is managed this poorly today.  I recogonize and appreciate that there are some good practitioners out there.  For example, my local car dealership sends maintenance reminders and coupons.  I receive discount coupons from my local barber shop for haircuts.  These work for me – because like most folks, I like discounts.  Specifically, I like discounts for things I have asked for and which are relevant to my needs.  Most importantly, if and when I wanted to, I know I could opt-out easily from them.

The wife of my youth and I get relevant print advertisements all the time and we do enjoy looking at them.  Sometimes we choose to opt-out when their relevancy is no longer applicable to us .  Take baby stuff.  Given our handsome twins are now twelve (12) years old – we simply don’t need baby items anymore, so we opted-out.

To my original point though, once again, my household has been recently and continually spammed with outright garbage – vehicle warranty extension offers (clear scams). This happens month-in and month-out around here.  Each pre-sorted mail advertisement arrives in the mail typically without a valid return address or way to contact the sender.  They are deceiving to me, and I consider them to be violations against Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) [Ch. 311, §5, 38 Stat. 719, codified at 15 U.S.C. §45(a)].   This is the power and purview of the FTC – the component which protects consumers, in large part by prohibiting entities from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in interstate commerce. front

Look at this example – I mean really look at it, and consider that this is “an official letter” no lesser than the birthday cards I get in the mail!

Some key elements from Section 5 that I believe apply…

Unfair Acts or Practices is defined as:

  • Cannot be reasonably avoided by consumers

Deceptive Acts or Practices is also defined as

  • A representation, omission, or practice misleads or is likely to mislead the consumer
  • A consumer’s interpretation of the representation, omission, or practice is considered reasonable under the circumstances; and The misleading representation, omission, or practice is material.

So, there is the deceptive cover, declaring “Time Sensitive” and urging my “Immediate Action” – we get into the meat of the message they’ve sent.  Consider the form factor – it’s one of those official looking credit card pin number security tinted envelope things where you have to rip the perforations on all sides off to get into it. Of course, you end up ripping the letter across it because even if you fold the perforated lines, they don’t work right! GRRRR. But I digress.

Now we are in to the letter, however it turns out there is no useable information other than calling a toll free number to be put on a hold cycle till someone picks up.  There is no contact address, no other opt-out information, and no indication as to who really sent it. Yes, there is a business name, but in my experience that changes month-over-month.  Using Google search reveals little information on the sender.  Instead, there is the clear realization of many others like me who are complaining about the unsolicited calls they get from these people, how the BBB has a ton of complaints on them, or how the offer is a RipOff.

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In this case though, I get lucky – I’ve been able to find out EXACTLY who is responsible. In the past its taken me days on end getting nowhere, but for this one I figure it out in minutes. I called the number contained in the “official” letter and when they answered after three (3) minutes of hold music I said. “Hey my father told me I needed to buy one of these “AWESOME” car extension warranties from you like he did last week, but I wanted to look at the plans with my wife later and wanted to know if you had a website we can review together?”  He replied hesitantly and asked me nervously “Wait, your dad bought one from us already and is a customer?” I continued my ruse (shame on me) and said excitedly “YES!

At that point he was happily satisfied and decided to give the address to me. Wait, Really? That easy? I should have told him he won the lotto in Nigeria and I need his banking information to send him the $20 Million dollars, but again, I digress.

What’s funny, and not surprising, is that as I write this, I’ve already noticed that the original website he gave me just a few hours ago already isn’t working anymore. It’s become a temporary landing page that now says “Coming Soon!”  Par for the course!

After some additional internet forensics and crawling around I now know the company identity:  EFG Companies.

Most surprising to me is that here they have yet to change their website address or other contact information.  It’s been up since 1999, unlike the temporary website information I had been given.  GOT THEM!  Now, I ask myself – why does it have to be like this? to simply identify who they are and get to know them?

Now, I’m sure you think I’m going to call them and rip them a new one… and you’re right!  I’m going to demand they remove me.  I expect they will claim open and public records laws in Texas (BLAH BLAH BLAH) and other distractions to substantiate their claim that they can spam me.  My job will be to preach Fair Information Principles – particulary Notice, Consent, and Choice.  I’ll break down for them the bad reputation they are giving the postal advertising/marketing industry, companies and brands the wife of my youth shops at. I will also send to them (with CC to the FTC) a declaration for them to “TAKE NOTICE of my FULL AND COMPLETE OPT-OUT permissions regarding messages to me and my family’s use of information about us. This includes solicitations by mail and telephone (telemarketing), and rental of my name in lists.” I’ve attached a PDF version to this if you want to use it yourself. It does work, from time to time. Opt-Out Declaration TEMPLATE

As a side note, the FTC has taken companies like these on before, but on the Robocalling side of their businesses, but it seems this is now their new way of getting around the rules and being secretive about their really business models.

Regarding my complaint, in  a few weeks I expect that I MIGHT get a call or letter from their General Counsel saying we are sorry and will suppress you.  For those like me who have been down this road – we know that most likely this will only continue once they “change” the name of the company or sell the data assets off to someone else who is in the ready to send postal mail and because the privacy policy that I’ve NEVER seen or AGREED to probably says that my information will be sold in a management change process.

So, what other tactics do I use in these situations?  Well, one practice is to contact the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) Ethics & Compliance.  Their goal is to enable direct marketing channels – keeping them open, safe and productive for businesses and consumers. They will contact the business regardless if they are a DMA member and work on my behalf to ensure the business is educated about the DMA Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice. They will also educate the business into ensuring they work with the DMAChoice service which is an online tool developed by the Direct Marketing Association to help you manage your offers mailings. Of course, I’ve been in that system for quite some time now, but obviously these guys at EFG do not reference it or are even DMA members. If your not, register for it.

Without going through all what we already know here about the proper use of personal identifiable information, CHOICE! is key to consumers regardless of the channel used. I know many will say its easier through digital, but I find that to be a bad response. Offline can manage recipient preference for  as it does with my relevant coupons example. You can still be hyper-transparent about who is sending postal mail, how to be easily contacted,  and provide multiple means for access – through URL or phone so that recipients can make an easy choice about if and how we want to be marketed to.

I wonder why the governments around the world manage the digital marketing arena with so much more rigor?  Digital marketers have to be clear about who sent the information and also include a way to opt-out, but the same regulations are seemingly not put applied (or enforced) in the offline world as well. I might suggest that the signals in the digital world are louder and trackable in it that shows a problem easier whereas the offline world does not.

I would love our lawmakers, Congresses and Parliaments, to step in to help stop these rampant abuses of PII regardless of the channel used. I know that some coalitions will disagree saying that more regulations are NOT needed, but I say they are wrong. Again, look at the digital world and Anti-Spam regulations. Did email die? No. Did email response rates go down? No. Did email lists get any smaller? No. Those regulations put companies into a more responsible light. We can now identify who the bad guys are vs. the good guys; even though the good guys mess up from time to time, we can identify them and fix the problem. Customers have a choice in the today’s relevant and modern digital marketing world.

I can see the offline regulations now; “senders of commercial postal mail must ensure that their postal mail”

  • Do not have false or misleading header information or deceptive subject lines. Further, the subject line of a commercial message cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message.
  • The sender must provide a return address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask the sender not to send future postal mail to that address, and the sender must honor the requests. Any opt-out mechanism offered must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after the message is sent. All opt-out requests must be processed within 10 business days.
  • Identify themselves as advertisements. Each commercial message must contain clear and conspicuous notice that the message is an advertisement or solicitation and that the recipient can opt out of receiving further commercial from the sender.
  • Contain the sender’s postal address. All commercial postal mail must include the sender’s valid physical postal address.

BTW: for this thought exercise, I simply took Can-Spam components and removed a few terms like “email” from it 😉

For those offline marketers that I could be so lucky to have reading this today, please examine your practices.  Look at how your giving choice to your offline targets. Take a simple example like postal catalogs that the wife of my youth enjoys… most these days have a way of contacting them via postal mail, phone numbers, and identifiers so that we can get off your lists if we need to. Try using the DMAChoice mail preference service as well to see who DOESN’T want your offers.

It’s ok people, in today’s relevant and modern marketing world it is acceptable to be thinking QUALITY over QUANTITY. Focus your efforts on those who want your marketing regardless of its channel, but more importantly in those we already know have issues like offline.

For consumers, here is a link that will talk about how to choose what offers you do want to see. You can even send the Opt-Out Declaration TEMPLATE I linked above to some of these companies who’s addresses are noted in that FTC website.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else finds these sorts of things in their mailboxes and can’t get off them as well. Or if you disagree or agree. Or if you want to chat with me about it further. I only have two cars and can’t imagine if I had more what sorts of alarming postal mail we would get. Just imagine if your grandmother received this? Would it alarm her? Would she go spend retirement money on having her car looked at or on something she didn’t need?

BTW: I included a printout of this article in my postal opt-out mail to EFG. Think they will get it now?

-Dennis

photo by: oskay

3 thoughts on “The Choice of Choice is Still Elusive”

  1. Alex Krylov says:

    We all heard FTC Chairwoman Ohlhausen say that there is no appetite for an overarching, EU-style privacy law. It’s odd that the FTC and FCC would bring rules up to a prior express written consent standard, but would not touch junk mail where shady practices and secondary markets flourish. IMO the days where opt-out is a reasonable consent baseline are long behind us.

  2. joe malley says:

    Anyone receiving letters from an auto warranty company, I would appreciate reviewing the letter. Please send a copy to malleylaw@gmail.com

    Thanks,
    Atty Joe Malley
    Dallas, Texas

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