How direct mail can get hairy

British Gas is in trouble for inundating its 19 million customers with junk mail quite unrelated to gas.

The Data Protection Registrar says the company is behaving in a manner which is unlawful and unfair and should desist forthwith. For its part, British Gas says it should be treated just like any other business and allowed to use its mailing list to market whatever it chooses. A tribunal will soon adjudicate on the matter. In the meantime, however, let me offer reassurance to all those many millions of recipients of direct mail shots who fear their privacy is being invaded.

Far from being fiendishly skilful, scientific and precise, direct marketing is a hit or miss exercise. The people responsible for sending envelopes marked “Don’t throw this away – important information inside” or “You are a guaranteed winner” know nothing whatever about the folk to whom they are sending these messages other than they might, with luck, be among the suckers whose number is said to increase by the minute.

The single exception to the rule is the Health Education Authority, an organisation so mind-numbingly smug that it knows what is best for all of mankind and therefore addresses its messages to every single household in the kingdom, which explains why maiden aunts and impeccably refined dowagers up and down the country received lurid warnings about the risks of unprotected sex and needle swapping.

Direct mailers, however, lacking buckets of taxpayers’ money and drains down which to pour them, are obliged to be more discriminate. Even so, mailing lists, demographics and postcode analysis are imprecise tools and no one need fear that his or her innermost secrets are being hacked from computer files by Machiavellian purveyors of cookery books, seed catalogues, and Scandinavian cruises.

For reasons I do not quite understand, I get more than my share of letters assuming that I am broke, or at least very hard up. These vary from financial institutions professing their willingness to lend me money, no questions asked, to companies offering business opportunities. The latter open with the salutation “Dear Friend” before getting straight down to it and asking me why I haven’t fulfilled my dreams, why I am not the envy of my friends and neighbours, why, in short, I am a penniless failure. I have no excuses because, for just a few hours a day, in my own home, and for a single payment of 150 plus VAT, I could be not simply earning money but rolling in it, stuffing my socks with it, tearing it up and defenestrating it, delirious with the glee that only oodles can bring.

No one sending me that kind of letter can have access to the privileged information that, although I am a simple fellow, I’m not quite as simple as that.

And how about this, from Bio-Trans of St Helier, Jersey, who write, “Remember, it took time for you to lose your hair, so it takes time to grow back again.”

Now, as those who know me will testify, I have a fallible memory. Some unkindly put this down to years of research into real ale, a task which, though selfless, has its price in the shape of a diminution of brain cells. But, for whatever reason, I do forget things. And I am damned if I remember losing my hair. After all, that’s not the sort of thing that passes unnoticed. Though I have reached the escarpment of middle age, when the days pass more quickly, I feel pretty certain that when I last looked in the mirror my thatch was still there. Thinner than it once was, to be sure, but not what you would describe as lost.

But Bio-Trans knows better and urges me to take half a tablet of Finasterine orally every other day. What is more, I can avail myself of the special offer of six months supply for just 295, a saving of 65 on the usual price.

This is an unusual mail shot in more ways than one, since it includes an article in which the anti-baldness drug is said to have the possible side-effects of “reduced libido, impotence and lesser ejaculatory volume”. Though those are precisely the kind of consequences I would expect to flow from taking out a subscription to Reader’s Digest (as requested by another of my unsolicited correspondents), I would have thought that bald men had no desire to pile loss upon loss.

Hang on, though, I have just spotted an item on the Bio-Trans product order form that could give the lie to all that I have said. Perhaps the company has pinpointed me after all. Maybe it has somehow tapped into my deeper psyche. For 11.99 ( a sum sufficiently small to meet the requirements of Scottish heredity) I can buy an Instant Hair Spray in black, dark brown, medium brown, light brown or grey.

Instant hair is a breakthrough far more significant than some restorative tablet. I assume you simply press the nozzle and out comes hair. Though not much of a mixer myself, I can imagine how such a device could add gaiety to any social occasion. Should, for example, a dinner party hostess thank you for not smoking, you may instantly adorn her purse-lipped countenance with a full beaver in medium brown. I’ve sent off for two.


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