Return to Dissembler

Today's mail brought a missive from the U.S. Postal Service: a small square envelope that bore the tantalizing question "Do you know what this is?" on one side and the provocative taunt "It's not what you think" on the other.

So what was it? My first thought, of course, was that it was a direct mail piece from the Post Office, touting the virtues of direct mail. Now that Fed Ex, email, and fax machines have reduced Ben Franklin's great legacy to American communication to an issuer of Warner Brothers collectibles, direct mail is pretty much the lifeblood of the organization - and thus they're constantly trying to convince the populace that it's not really the waste of trees that it is.

But since the letter had informed me that it wasn't what I thought it was, what could it possibly be?

Well. It turns out that whatever it is, it certainly bears a striking resemblance to the direct-mail-is-good direct mail pitch I had anticipated. When opened, the small square envelope actually became a large circular poster, stuffed with a letter and a return envelope. The circular poster featured success stories of four respectable corporations that had effectively employed direct mail campaigns: Cablevision, USAAA Federal Savings Bank, Hallmark, and Bloomingdales. (In other words, not your typical annoying direct marketing junk mailers, like the American Slide-Chart Corporation, which for some reason has determined that I have an inordinate interest in pop-up calendars and deluxe pie graphs, and thus has been inundating me lately with incredible deals for these items.)

The letter that accompanied this piece reiterated this it's-classier-than-you-think refrain, explaining, "The change is most apparent in the mailings from industries not known for direct marketing. They're reinventing the medium." And, finally, to prove that direct mail is a serious, highly regarded, highly effective, Fortune 500 kind of venture, the letter used all the requisite, best-selling business-book buzzwords: direct mail "builds brands," "targets customers," "cultivates relationships," and "improves return on investment."

Frankly, it was all a bit too professional. The fact that the letter invalidated its claim of "targeting customers" by mistakenly assuming that I was an "advertising executive" was a slight consolation, but not enough. Thirty years ago, direct mail was a charmingly obsequious medium, a cheap way for companies who couldn't afford print, TV, or radio to publicize their products and services. The world's greatest car salesman, Joe Girard, who helped popularize the direct mail medium, simply used to send out cards to his customers on a monthly basis that read "I like you!" No database profiling there, no four-color printing with gimmicky mailing packages, no euphemestic, respectable marketing language - just naked greed dusted with the most transparent gloss of fellowship. Truly, those were the days...

-- G. Beato

current   |  archives   |  about   |   |  elsewhere