There is something deeply satisfying in the virtuous circle that has led a large number of British companies to complain about the intrusiveness of junk mail. For it takes a hard heart indeed not to rejoice at the sight of the biter being bit.
A survey by the Department of Industry shows that a rising tide of spam messages is seriously inconveniencing business. The main complaint is that it is intrusive. Well, what do you know? Though much is said – usually by advertising people themselves – about the clutter of advertising messages, there is a little evidence to suggest that it upsets many people. That is because advertising in general may be safely ignored.
The difference with junk mail either electronic or paper-based is, as the companies surveyed attested, that it is intrusive. Admittedly, television advertisements are intrusive, but it takes only a moment’s reflection to remind us that without the advertisements there would be no independent television. The same, however, cannot be said of junk mail, without which the postman would still call and the sun would still shine.
Direct mail, to give it its preferred named, is an example of the law of unintended consequences. Had Rowland Hill suspected when he invented the Penny Post that it would in due course unleash an an unstoppable tide of unsolicited mail-order catalogues, many featuring novelty toilet-roll holders, can we be sure that he would have proceeded? Would Anthony Trollope have been as contented a postmaster, knocking out literary masterpieces on the side, had his conscience been troubled by the misery the Post Office was to inflict on countless thousands of recipients of invitations to take out insurance NOW and get a carriage clock?
One of the mysteries of junk mail is the process by which it multiplies itself. As every victim knows, you need only make the mistake of ordering a pair of winceyette pyjamas to discover within a very short time that every other manufacturer of nightwear, both at home and abroad, has somehow obtained your name and address and is convinced, in defiance of common sense and logic, that your appetite for pyjamas is limitless.
The worst offenders are in the financial services industry. Anyone who has a bank account or a credit card – and that is about 60 per cent of the population – knows that when the postman comes to call he will be bearing an invitation to borrow money. Almost all are couched in the same terms and assume that the recipient is in a perpetual state of fanciful reverie. He or she has for ever in mind dream kitchens, dream bathrooms, dream holidays, and, most unlikely of all, dreams of motoring along empty roads in a dream car. All that is needed to make these illusions come true is to take out a loan at an astonishingly low rate of interest, usual carriage clock included.
Although the direct mail industry bridles at the term junk, by its own admission a three per cent response rate is considered good, so how else are we to describe the remaining 97 per cent if not in terms that might most kindly be synonymous with waste?
Targeting is another problem. When junk mail is obviously misdirected the recipient may easily believe that the sender is implying something personal. An anonymous woman in Devon, for instance, was upset to receive a catalogue unsolicited through the post from French Connection. It advertised a selection of T-shirts featuring slogans such as “Sexy as fcuk”, “No fcuking angel” and “fcuk like a bunny”.
Some commentators thought it amusing that French Connection should have unwittingly discovered the only person remaining in Britain who could be shocked by its slogan, but is it not likely that she was less scandalised than irritated by the intrusion into her home of the wit and humour of the British underclass?
There is nothing to compare with living in one of the country’s loveliest counties to remind one that every prospect pleases and only man is vile. It is surely enough to contend with the annual descent of the tourists without having to put up with examples of their taste thrust through your letter-box in the close season.
This, of course, is not the first example of its kind. Years ago, the then government leafleted every household in the land warning in the starkest terms of the scourge of AIDS. And so it was that an unknown number of blameless maiden ladies, many no doubt dwelling in Devon, came to be advised on the safest way in which to practise anal sex. Mail doesn’t come much more intrusive.
So let us not feel too sorry for the British companies that now find themselves at the wrong end of unwanted commercial messages. After all, they are probably the very same organisations which have installed telephone answering systems designed to treat every caller with electronically crafted indifference.
It’s nice to think that although customers cannot get through, pedlars of impotence cures and bogus money-making schemes are reaching the very heart of these wretched companies. Strange that in the post-industrial service economy what we are best at is irritating the hell out of each other.