Direct marketing issues of the 90s 10/03/93

Once upon a time, the word “green” referred only to the cool end of the colour spectrum, “landfill” was a way to turn a harbour into a housing development and “junk” was usually hidden from view behind a board fence. No more. On several fronts, environmental issues are of major concern to consumers and, consequently, to government and direct marketers.

Whether the issue is protection of renewable natural resources, waste disposal management or environmental contamination, “junk mail” is an easy, visible target. Despite the reality that discarded mail makes up only a small fraction of landfill content, paper manufacturers have always had tree re-planting programs and the use of automobiles and road salt has much more to do with pollution, no one using direct mail can afford to ignore the issue. Perception too easily becomes reality as consumers believe “junk mail” results in decimated forests, overflowing landfill sites and poisoned air and water. Reduce, re-use, re-cycle is now the norm and the ongoing challenge for direct mailers is to deal with consumers heightened expectations about good corporate citizenship.

The fact that it’s only “junk mail” when it’s in the wrong mailbox means better market selection and targetting techniques become ever more critical.

Meanwhile, throughout the industrialized world, governments are turning their attention to safeguarding the rights of individuals to privacy. The overall issue is far broader than the impact of direct marketing practices–it encompasses areas as wide-ranging as credit checking, employee behaviour in the workplace, telephone use and personal surveillance.

The privacy umbrella, however, affects direct marketing directly where it focuses on the use of information about individuals. Where computer technology is perceived as facilitating the gathering, use and sharing of vast amounts of personal data, direct marketers run comparable perceptual risks. Risks of being perceived as abusers of individual rights to privacy, however loosely defined.

The passing of the federal “Privacy Act” in 1982 and the concurrent creation of the office of the Privacy Commissioner laid the groundwork for legislative focus on the subject. In Quebec and Europe, potential legislation has headed in some comprehensive and onerous directions for direct marketer. These were narrowly averted through the lobbying efforts of the industry. The rapid growth of database and communications technology has developed beyond the point where education and public relations alone will dissipate the negative connotations.

Groups such as the Canadian Direct Marketing Association are doing their part to develop conprehensive self-regulating codes. It is now up to individual companies using database marketing techniques to voluntarily comply with their industry colleagues or to, at least, develop their own principles of voluntary action.

In the end, when it comes to compliance with accepted industry codes of conduct concerning issues such as privacy and the environment, the alternative will, no doubt, be restrictive legislation. And, as usual, the few bad apples will have spoiled the whole barrel.

 Charles de Gruchy remembers the way it was

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