Rupert Howell was “astounded”. But not as astounded as the Automobile Association members who received airmail envelopes containing fake bills for 419 and French police accident reports.
“We were completely astounded that people thought it was real,” says Howell, managing partner of HHCL & Partners, which created the mailer idea to go out to 50,000 members of the AA promoting its overseas insurance policy, Five Star Service. “We really cannot believe it.”
The fact that the envelope also contained “a huge letter from the AA saying ‘Don’t Worry’,” and that the back of the envelope had a UK address stamped on it went unnoticed.
Some recipients panicked. The French police received calls. As did the AA and the Advertising Standards Authority which is now investigating the case. The AA, which says it never intended or expected the mailer to be based on shock tactics, had to fire off a series of apologetic letters. At least one recipient is threatening legal action.
HHCL is hardly an agency that is known for trying to steer clear of controversy, but on this occasion the ructions were unintentional. “The only people we thought we might offend were the French Tourist Board but they saw it as a public service,” says Howell. “It was supposed to be a bit like a vaccination – a bit of a shock but better than the real thing. I think that maybe what happened was that people see a bill – and they freeze.”
Other observers have different views. “I find it staggering that they could be so stupid,” says Jon Ingall, managing director of direct marketing agency Evans Hunt Scott. “Agencies stopped doing that sort of thing five years ago because it upset people. With direct mail you want a positive effect. You don’t want to frighten the living daylights out of people.”
ASA regulations state that mailings should not make unreasonable appeals to fear. HHCL thought the cover letter would put minds at rest.
Perhaps what the agency failed to fully appreciate when it designed the campaign, is that direct mail is a highly personal and intrusive medium. Consumers are used to seeing spoof TV ads and posters but when these spoofs come in the post, along with bills and bank statements, they can hit a raw nerve.
“Direct mail is the most intrusive medium. It is personal,” adds Ingall. “The industry has learned through experience that the best way is to make the mailer compelling and exciting. Direct mail is as capable of creating a positive effect as it is a negative effect.”
HHCL is hardly the first agency to have a direct mail campaign backfire. There were more than 2.5 billion items of direct mail sent last year, up from 1.1 billion ten years ago. The Direct Mail Services Standards Board (now called the Direct Mail Accreditation and Recognition Centre) investigated 16,222 of them in 1994, out of which it took action over 376.
In the past two years the ASA has received a growing number of complaints about direct mail. In 1993 it upheld 48 complaints out of a total 687 levelled. Last year 26 out of 906 were upheld. But this should be seen in the context of the growing use of direct mail by fmcg companies, like Heinz and Unilever, making the industry worth over 1bn, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).
Some blunders have become almost legend. One financial firm is said to have sent several thousand letters addressed to “Dear fat rich bastard” after a temp altered the salutation, for a joke.
Faulty databases were also at the heart of a complaint against sado-masochist holiday specialist Westward Bound. The firm found itself with redder cheeks than normal in September 1993, when it had to explain to the ASA why a 12-year-old girl had received a personally addressed holiday catalogue.
Elsewhere, apparent at-tempts at marketing innovation have caused things to go badly wrong. The ASA was called in to investigate London-based firm VIS which had placed ads for rechargeable batteries in The Daily Telegraph. In what some may regard as admirable lateral thinking, VIS then sent battery ad respondents an offer for an inflatable “LUV EWE” sheep. Respondents were not impressed. Neither was the ASA, which considered the mailing offensive.
According to Mark Elwes, director of media relations for the DMA, innovation is not always a good idea for this medium. “It is quite interesting that some of the dullest advertising is the most effective. Reader’s Digest is creatively awful, but it works,” he says. “Targeting and incentives are in many ways the most important elements of mailshots.”
It may seem odd that the DMA should be praising creatively dull work, but as Elwes points out, any attempts at creativity can go badly wrong. “In all advertising there is always the cock-up factor. I suppose because this is a more complicated medium there is more danger. As an industry we have to be on our guard.”
This cock-up factor is not always the fault of the team which comes up with the original idea, as Compaq Computer discovered last year. The firm had intended to send a mailer, out of which a confetti-like sprinkling of paper would emerge. But a fault at the mailing house turned the few pieces into an avalanche.
One recipient was so angry after picking the pieces out of his keyboard, that he promptly filled a large envelope with the contents of several hole punches and posted it back to Compaq.
“I think you learn by experience,” says Steve Jackson, Compaq’s advertising and direct marketing manager. “We won’t do that again.”
Another thing Compaq learned from experience is that one of the greatest problems of a direct mail campaign is that there is no way of retracting it. You can pull an ad off the TV with one call. But if you have already sent out a few thousand mailpacks there is no way back.
Kevin Twittey, chief executive of below-the-line agency Triangle, says a solution is pre-testing mailers on select audiences. “You have to ask what can possibly go wrong.” Even then, some slip through.
Triangle sent out a mailshot earlier this year for the Fiat Ducato van. When opened, the mailer made a sound like a telephone ringing. It was supposed to advertise a free offer of an answering machine. The pre-test group failed to realise that some recipients would think it was a bomb. “There is a lunatic fringe out there and that should be your benchmark,” comments Twittey.
Perhaps it may be some small comfort to HHCL that it is hardly alone, as it weathers the storm. Howell reflects with hindsight, that maybe the word “specimen” should have been stamped on the bills. But as Twittey points out, it is wrong to lay the blame entirely at HHCL’s door.
“If HHCL had come up with a bland mailer it would have had zip-all impact. When they first delivered the work I bet it was applauded. It backfired, but this is one of those things that could happen to anyone.”