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Will we ever clear our doormats of junk mail?

The average home gets 453 pieces of junk mail a year. No wonder so many of us want to cut the amount we receive. Robert Rijkhoff, of the Stop Junk Mail campaign, explains why current measures simply don’t work.

Britain uses about three times its fair share of paper. Yet, even though it’s clear we don’t have enough trees to sustain our level of paper consumption, we can’t even seem to cut junk mail.

What’s wrong with us?

The fox is guarding the hen house

Royal Mail distributes about half of all unaddressed junk mail that comes through the door. The company is well aware that not everybody appreciates all those leaflets from Virgin Media, Direct Line, Domino’s Pizza and the like, and so it has set up an opt-out scheme.

According to the latest figures, just under 0.8% of households has opted out. If you think that’s a rather low percentage, you might be interested to know that a second opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail, run by the Direct Marketing Association and ironically called “Your Choice”, has an opt-out rate of just 0.006%.

Opt-out schemes rarely work, and schemes that are as ineffective and customer-unfriendly as the above-mentioned ‘services’ will never achieve opt-out rates of any significance. I believe opt-out schemes like Your Choice exist purely to give the impression that the industry is being responsible. It’s the fox guarding the hen house; a prime example of how self-regulation shouldn’t work.

The new magic word: targeting

The Direct Marketing Association et al don’t make a secret of the fact that they don’t like the idea of people opting out. The industry’s preferred solution is “targeting”. By collecting vast amounts of data about people’s interests and lifestyles, marketeers believe they are nowadays able to target people with “communications” they’ll almost certainly be interested in.

Much as the junk mail industry would like to be in the same league as Google and Facebook, it’s clear that its figures don’t add up. After years of targeting, about 70% of all unsolicited mail is still unaddressed, and therefore not targeted in any meaningful way. Targeting can only be a small part of the solution to the junk mail issue.

The fear of the consumer

The industry’s solutions – setting up opt-out schemes and improving targeting – haven’t solved the junk mail problem. The reason is that both approaches have been dreamed up behind closed doors, without consulting the recipients of advertising mail. People don’t want complicated opt-out schemes, nor do they want the industry to use ever more sophisticated targeting tools. They just want less junk mail.

Marketeers don’t want to hear this. Yet, it’s the only solution, and one that has worked well in many other countries. Making it truly easy for people to stop unwanted advertisements is the only form of targeting that works. Not only does it prevent people from being force-fed advertisements, it also makes sense from an economic point of view.

You see, by not sending advertisements to people who hate junk mail, the industry doesn’t have to waste resources on targeting the unwilling, which increases the sender’s “return on investment”.

Any workable solution will have to start with a constructive debate. The industry would need to overcome some taboos and be willing to discuss, for instance, launching a single website where people can register with various opt-out schemes for unsolicited marketing (there are more than ten of them!).

Another topic that has so far escaped debate is whether or not reducing unaddressed mail should be easy as putting a freely and readily available “No Junk Mail” sign on your door.

So far, marketeers have been unwilling to have such a debate. It’s not just ironic that they want to know everything about us but refuse to talk about reducing junk mail – it’s precisely the reason why industry self-regulation is failing to reduce waste. Marketeers suffer from an irrational fear of the consumer.

Have you tried to stop junk mail?

Yes - and it's helped reduce it (37%, 211 Votes)

Yes - but it hasn't worked (35%, 198 Votes)

No - I don't know how to (20%, 112 Votes)

No - I can't be bothered (9%, 50 Votes)

Total Voters: 571

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Comments
Member

I hate junk mail but I can put it in the recycling bin.

Unwanted telephone calls are a much bigger problem and demand immediate attention.

Member

I deal with junk mail one company at a time. I send their junk mail back to them (preferably in their return envelope) with comments asking the sender to stop wasting resources. Junk mail makes a mockery of all of our recycling efforts.
I usually have a disclaimer to send to companies at the bottom of my emails, which quotes European law relating the choice of opting out.
These things seem to work over time. The problem with official opt-out schemes is where the opt-out lists are available overseas in countries where sending junk mail to opted out addresses is not illegal.

Member

I make such sending a contractual term liable to a charge of £9.50 everytime I receve a junk mail including junk email ….and lo and behold things have dried up, thanks also to the MPS and TPS as to unwanted phone calls.

Why £9.50… this is the permitted costs per hour (or part thereof) if you were litigant yourself in the County Court… in any event, must not appear to be overly greedy!

Member

I’m not sure that I understand what you do; perhaps you could explain further? Is this something that individuals can do?

Member
Walter says:
20 September 2012

I don’t understand either, please elaborate.

Member

I will be doing the same but I will be following this up with the Royal Mail. I hope to get them to court eventually and get this stopped

Member

I have been thinking of doing the same with CALL CENTRES.Also stress of doing it needs compensation too .There is a petition site where you can set them up .I think it is connected to my society who havebarred me from their whatdoyouknow site for asking too many questions.

Member
Vonph says:
18 October 2011

I agree, it’s a waste of resource and a waste of my time. If I need/want a pizza/new windows/a better insurance deal or anything else, I’ll search for it.

I think it should be an “opt-in” scheme. I’d be happy to receive that one piece of “junk” informing me I need to opt-in should I wish to receive any further “junk”, if there is a governing/regulating body for this kind of communication. I’d even be happy to receive it once a year as a reminder I can opt-in.

I also think that the Yellow Pages and BT phonebook should be on an opt-in basis, as that is also wasted resource. A lot of people have the internet to search with these days.

Member

The Yellow Pages, BT Phone Book (and Thomson Local Directory) are another fine example of failing industry self-regulation. There’s no need to deliver 75 million unsolicted directories per year anymore. Distributing these books on an opt-in basis would save mountains of paper and make sure that people who still use phone books will continue to receive them.

Directory publishers know their books are an environmental hazard, yet they’re doing everything they can to keep quiet about opting out – and if people do ask to be opted out they’ll try to ignore the request (see for instance this saga).

If you want to have a go at opting out of receiving paper directories, here are the contact details for Yell, BT and Thomson Local:

Yell – Phone 0800 671 444 or send an e-mail via this contact form
Thomson Local – Send an e-mail to distribution@thomsonlocal.com or phone 01252 555 555
BT – Phone 0800 833 400 and choose option 2

An easier option is to contact all three companies in one go via Junk Buster

Member

I emailed the post office to opt-out , they sent me a link to a online form I should print out fill out and sign. Not having a printer sux. I’m sure they make it harder as they love dropping tons of the stuff thru my letter box almost daily.

Member

It’s possible to get the opt-out form in the post by phoning Royal Mail on 01865 796 964 or 01865 796 988 – either number will get you straight to the team administering the opt-out scheme.

You’re right in saying Royal Mail actively discourages people from reducing unsolicited leaflets. Until a couple of years ago the company insisted on sending a paper opt-out form to people’s home address via snail mail. This was necessary, Royal Mail claimed, to verify your address (they were worried people might stop their neighbours’ junk mail). Royal Mail no longer feels the need to verify people’s address and so they could now finally add a page to their website where people can register online. A simple online opt-out form would make life easier for everybody. That’s of course exactly what Royal Mail wants to prevent.

It are simple things like this that make the opt-out scheme so customer-unfriendly.

Member

It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation.

Since Royal Mail was privatised, junk mail has increased tremendously. It is how they make their money. If you stop junk mail, postage costs will rise even more.

Member

Unfortunately, I find this article biased.

Firstly, what is ‘junk’ mail? It is not junk to its originator. Is it limited to advertising material or do you include, for example, leaflets from your MP?

Then, the article suggests that 0.8% of households opting out of the Royal Mail scheme is low. However, if you consider the number of households in the UK (and I have no idea how many there are), I believe that the number of households having opted out will be significant.

The low take up may be because many people may not have heard of the opt-out schemes. Before this article, I had never heard of any, apart from the Mailing Preference Service.

The survey options of ‘No’ have only the choices ‘don’t know how’ and ‘can’t be bothered’. What about, ‘No, because I want to receive advertising mail’?

The article also states that people want less junk mail. Is this verifiable fact or the author’s personal opinion? If the latter, he is entitled to it, but should make it clear that it is just an opinion, not give the impression that it is fact.

I think that some companies survive because of this type of mail, from a local takeaway to Royal Mail. Also, it provides employment, with people working as leaflet distributors.

It is obvious why organisations make it hard to opt out, as (in my view) it is against their commercial interest.

My only gripe against unwanted paper mail is the waste of natural resources.

I personally like to receive such mail. Sometimes, I have followed some of it up. What I don’t want goes to a research panel that gives me gift vouchers for sending it to them. Here is another benefit of such mail, that would not exist without it.

Now, cold callers (at the door or on the phone) are a completely different matter (don’t get me started on that).

Member

You’re raising a lot of points! I try to keep my reply brief…

I define “junk mail” as “commercial and unsolicited advertising mail”. That definition includes addressed advertising mail that has not been requested as well as leaflets that try to sell me something; but it excludes non-commercial items such as political newsletters. Other definitions of junk mail are more narrow (i.e. don’t make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial items).

Is there bias in the use of the term “junk mail”? Maybe, but then there’s bias in so many nouns. I feel the term “direct mail”, as used by my friends at the Direct Marketing Association, is biased. I don’t think the use of either term is much of an issue, in particular when expressing an opinion (it would be an issue had the article been an entry for the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

I don’t think it’s controversial to state that there are many people who want less junk mail. It’s called “junk mail” for a reason – even the industry openly admits it needs to rid itself of its “junk mail image”. And, the reason the industry has set up so many opt-out schemes is of course that there are so many people who don’t want their letterbox stuffed with advertisements. Had I claimed something like “the majority of people hate junk mail” it would be fair to ask for clarification, but my innocent observation that “many people want less junk mail” really doesn’t need to be verified.

The point I’m making in the article is that the industry’s attempts to cut waste (to which it has committed itself in an ongoing agreement with Defra) are failing. I demonstrate this by presenting facts: opt-out schemes achieve extremely low opt-out rates (0.8% and 0.006% is extremely low by any standard) and despite all the industry’s talk about “targeting” over 70% of advertising mail is still unaddressed, and therefore not targeted – and the figure of 70% excludes inserts in papers and magazines!.

The article concludes that the only way to get a system that works for both advertisers and recipients is to work together. This is something that’s not happening at all at the moment – recipients of junk mail have no say whatsoever in how the industry regulates itself. This is, in my opinion, why junk mail is much more of an issue in Britain than it is in most other (European) countries. In fact, I don’t think other (European) countries have such a derogatory term for advertising mail.

In other words, the article is an invitation to the industry to start working with recipients to solve the junk mail issue once and for all. It contains some sensible ideas that would help people not interested in unsolicited mail and increase the profitability of advertising mail. Is that biased?

Finally, I should clarify that the poll at the bottom of the article has been added by Which?. I agree this doesn’t add anything to the article. Neither do all those ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ buttons. I guess such ‘Web 2.0’ elements are just as unavoidable as junk mail…

That’s a long reply after all.

Member

Thank you for your long and considered response. I apologise if my tone sounded wrong; it was not meant to be an attack on you.

One thing that the industry should do is to make people aware of the opt-out schemes. Yes, there should be constructive debate with everyone affected.

Member

Judging by the amount of unrelated dross that falls out of every subscription magazine that comes into this house [except Which? I am pleased to report] I suspect that if the delivery of unaddressed mail by the Post Office dried up the advertisers would soon find another way of bombarding us – although at least magazine insertions do have a a grain of targetting associated with them I suppose. Since we opted out of the Royal Mail unaddressed mail deliveries some two or three years ago the system has worked and we get nothing via that channel, however achieving the opt out was far from straightforward and there were vague cautions along the lines of “you will no longer receive important announcements from your local council” and so on. I don’t think we have missed anything important. Half the unsolicited paper that lands on our doormat is actually addressed to us and we are tired of returning it with deletion requested as nobody takes any notice. Charities seem to be the worst for this. Far too much paper has to go in the recycling bin and it is just forcing up the price of paper as well as the prices of goods and services.

Member

You make some good points.

I would like to add that advertisers use inserts in newspapers and magazines that you buy. These inserts cannot possibly be targeted, unlike the ones in subscription publications.

Yes, advertisers would find other means. How many leaflet distributors take heed of a ‘No Junk Mail’ sign, I wonder?

How do you know that you have not missed out on something important? This year alone I’ve had two important unaddressed communications.

As to the addressed unsolicited mail, why don’t you complain to a customer services manager, for example? You have a right to stop this mail.

Charities are actually worse than paper advertisers. At least, paper can be recycled, but not the clothing collection bags that I frequently receive.

Member

In reply to two of my points, it’s worth following the ‘opt-out scheme’ link near the beginning of the article. It leads to an excellent web page.

Member

May I suggest that you put a link to the Stop Junk Mail site in your article? I found it in one of your replies.

It is such a useful site, that it should be brought to people’s attention. Perhaps Which? could also do something to increase awareness of the site. And how about increasing general awareness, not just amongst the magazine’s subscribers?

Member

Hello Louis

We have worked closely with Robert from the Stop Junk Mail campaign and have linked to his very good website in our article. This Conversation post is a follow-up to an article that was published in Which? magazine this month and has a handy flow diagram on what to do to reduce the amount of junk mail and links to the Stop Junk Mail website. This website also has a handy junk buster widget that lets you sign up to 6 different opt-out schemes in one go.

Member

Hi Louis, there’s two links in the Conversation and you can find a link to the website’s homepage at the bottom of the article under ‘Useful Links’. Thanks!

Member
greg says:
22 October 2011

Richard, your campaign is worthy but an over-reaction to a minor irritant.
It also does not take into account the layers of benefit generated by these mailings. It is true that Royal Mail would probably cease functioning if it wasn’t for the revenue it receives from so-called junk mail. It is also true that a company like my own, a home-improvement company, does around 30% of its £1.5m business each year because of business generated through mail-shots to existing customers. We employ directly twelve people none of whom are complaining about junk mail when the orders come in. We are not alone. Many businesses and their employees have an even higher reliance on mail shots which kill or maim nobody. Although judging by the hysterical reaction of some of your readers, you would think they were toxic pieces of paper delivering strains of anthrax through their doors. The people who complain most about junk mail are the ones who don’t directly benefit from it and don’t want to look beyond their nose. Many of them aren’t involved in the “dirty” businesses of commerce, trade and retailing. However, it’s the taxes from those businesses that run the hospitals, schools, civil services, pay the benefit bills, open the old folks’ homes etc etc etc. The Direct Marketing Association estimates that Direct Mail generates around 16 billion pounds worth of business per year. Moan and whinge about the lack of growth in the economy if you must. Moan and groan about your sons and daughters not being able to get jobs in the present recessionary times. But don’t moan at those of us who are working flat out trying to generate the business which creates those jobs. So, I say to the person who recently sent us back one of our letters in a large unstamped envelope with the mailing cut up into hundreds of tiny pieces and a silly, offensive note inside…..”Get a life.” Do what the rest of us do….if you don’t want it, throw it in the recycler and tell yourself that a neighbour nearby is responding to the advert and keeping someone’s job going at a time when we need all the help we can get.
(Now, I suppose you, Richard, and all of the other over-reactors on here will be busy getting their keyboards out to have a raging response. Before you do, please reread my comments. They are intended to ask you to look beyond the annoyance of that next junk letter and look at its beneficial effects instead. They annoy me too but, hey, I get over it!)

Member

Greg,

You have put wonderfully one of the points that I tried to make in my first post on this forum: the fact that direct marketing mail creates jobs (I mentioned leaflet distributors, but you added another aspect to employment creation).

I suspect that some people hate ‘junk’ mail, because they are frustrated at the amount of stuff coming through their letterbox. There have been days when I have felt like this, when several leaflet distributors have come to my door in one day, especially when they are so careless as to bang the letterbox loudly or leave the mail hanging out of the letterbox. But then, I also realise the value of such mail. I occasionally follow some ads up, one I received today being a good example. It takes little effort to recycle unwanted mail.

However, unsolicited mail also has environmentally damaging effects, in the natural resources that are used in production and recycling, not to mention the cost.

What you do with your firm is targeted advertising, which is acceptable, as these people have dealt with you before. What is unacceptable, perhaps, is blanket advertising that is not targeted and that therefore causes irritation.

Member

Greg, my article is about self-regulation by the ‘direct mail’ industry. It argues that the industry has failed to reduce waste and that it has failed to come up with ways that make it easy for people to control what mail comes through the letterbox. The article also makes some suggestions for improvements, and invites the industry to have a debate about how we can get to a system that works for both advertisers and its ‘targets’. That’s not an “overreaction”, it’s a perfectly valid and nuanced argument.

To be frank, your comment reads as a slight overreaction. You suggest that anyone who, for whatever reason, would like to cut back on unsolicited mail should just “look beyond their nose”. It’s worth noting that your view isn’t supported by the Direct Marketing Association and the Royal Mail. It may come as a surprise, but within the industry there’s general agreement that forcing advertising mail upon the unwilling is a waste of money and resources, and reflects poorly on advertsers and the industry as a whole.

That said, there is a debate to be had about ‘direct mail’ and the economy. We need a system that works for everybody: advertisers, people, and the environment. Unfortunately, the direct mail industry is avoiding that debate. The Direct Marketing Association does indeed routinely come up with the claim that ‘direct mail’ contributes £16bn to the UK economy, thereby implying that we shouldn’t care too much about people who don’t enjoy unsolicited mail and the environment. This is rather unconstructive, as the Direct Marketing Association also refuses to reveal how its research has been conducted. All we know is that the research was funded by the Direct Marketing Association and that it’s used to lobby, amongst others, Defra.

A proper debate about junk mail and the economy would be about to what extend making it easier for people to reduce unwanted mail would affect the economy. There are reasons to assume that giving more power to people would benefit both the direct mail industry and the economy: by leaving alone the unwilling the industry’s ‘targeting’ would improve, and so would the ‘return on investment’ of the average mail-out. It can also be argued that a move away from ‘direct mail’ to other (less annoying and wasteful) forms of advertising would benefit the economy as a whole and create more jobs than there would be lost.

At the moment it’s difficult to have such a debate, as any research that’s being done is paid for by the industry and used for lobbying purposes. Again, this is why the article invites the industry not to be afraid of the consumer, and to instead start a sensible debate.

Member
greg says:
22 October 2011

Sorry, I meant “Robert” not “Richard”.

Member

If we wait for the industry to start a debate, we might be waiting forever, as why would it want to start one when it’s against its own interest?

We need the government to force this debate. There are two main sides, as I see them: benefit to the economy and damage to the environment.

The practicality is how to get the government to start such a debate. Perhaps via the official petition site and by lobbying MPs?

Member

Interesting point. Earlier this year I met with Defra, which has an ongoing voluntary producer responsibility agreement with the industry aimed at reducing waste caused by junk mail. I made the case for a proper public debate about direct mail, the economy, and the environment – that is, a debate based on facts rather than unverifiable industry claims. Although I got the distinct feeling Defra agrees such a debate is needed there’s currently no political will to address the issue. The junk mail industry is self-regulating, and without political support Defra can only make suggestions to the industry. Unsurprisingly, these get routinely rejected (behind closed doors and with no minutes taken).

I’d support and promote any petition calling for a real, unbiased debate on the junk mail issue. Not sure if it would get the required 100,000 signatures though – it wouldn’t be a very sexy petition.

What would probably do the trick is if one or more large consumer / environmental groups would be willing to campaign on the issue. Organisations such as Which? and Consumer Focus could for instance invite the public to report any junk mail issues to them. These could be then be brought to the attention of our political representatives. I could see such a campaign working, in particular as its demand would be incredible modest: to have an open debate, based on facts.

Maybe someone from Which? wants to comment on that 🙂

Member

Why are the LAsTrading Standards allowing the people who print it to get away without costs as surely against recycling policies. The Govenment needs to make this illegal.

Member

Regarding the above how about an e petitiom [ pledgebank ] worded by himself [ Robert] f promoted here?

Member

Thank you for the suggestion Robert.

Hopefully our junk mail article in the November issue of Which? magazine played a useful role in providing information and raising awareness on what action people can take, especially with the handy flowchart featured in the article.

We also wanted to gauge people’s attitudes towards the issue, which we did carrying out a consumer survey of over 1,000 people and with this Conversation.

Which? has to prioritise its advocacy and campaign work and at present we are not planning our own campaign on junk mail or direct marketing.

To everyone else, including Louis, we’ve worked with Robert on this Conversation and would encourage those people who want to take action to use his handy junk mail buster tool on his website http://www.stopjunkmail.org.uk where you can also support his campaign.

Member
Dom Herlihy says:
31 October 2011

Pace! to all those who would respond “Get A Life”; this is indeed one of life’s little nuisances, but all those times (two to three a week where I live in London) when the distributor leaves the gate wide open for those dogs who don’t have pooper-scooper owners, is a real pain. The distributors of whom I speak are the ones telling me of the latest Pizza/Thai/Curry house in my neighbourhood -but I know that already! I can see ’em when I walk through any of the many local high streets that surround me. There’s no Opt-Out service that covers these guys.

However I can confirm that the Mailing Preference Service has certainly worked for me since I subscribed many years ago.