For Position Only: The Threat to Direct-Mail Advertising
If you thought the anthrax scare was just a problem for postal workers and for Democratic members of Congress, think again. While the graphic arts industry isn't targeted by terrorists per se, anyone who designs printed materials -- magazines, catalogs, brochures, newsletters, or any other content that's sent through the U.S. mail -- suddenly faces a new business challenge: how to market your wares using mailed, printed materials without scaring the bejeezus out of your customers.
According to a recent study by CTL Research, 45 percent of the public is concerned about viruses and chemicals being carried in the mail and 37 percent feel personally at risk. Perhaps even more importantly (considering that you do not produce tainted materials and that you do have a job to do), the CTL Research study found that during this time of crisis 66 percent of the public does not want to receive as much unsolicited mail and 53 percent discards mail they can't positively identify.
This poses a conundrum, especially at the holiday time when direct-mail advertising and promotions traditionally reach a fever pitch. Clearly, the public doesn't know what the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) knows about this subject: that direct mail is actually the safest form of mail that arrives in people's offices and homes. According to the DMA, businesses and organizations that send out direct mail typically have tight controls over the production and distribution of their materials. Each piece is accounted for and none is anonymous; direct mail is also typically presorted and therefore bypasses postal sorting locations where mail may be cross-contaminated.
Design with Security in Mind
Fortunately, according to the DMA and other organizations, there are a number of steps you can take as a designer and producer of printed and mailed marketing materials to reduce the fear factor and increase the likelihood that customers will read, instead of recycle, your material:
- If possible, mail postcards instead of envelopes.
- If you use envelopes, choose a color instead of plain white, or use a clear envelope and a colored mailer. Mail-Well Inc., the world's largest envelope manufacturer, has created the Visulope envelope in response to the public's fears about biological terrorism transmitted through the mail. The Visulope contains windows that wrap around the bottom of the envelope, so postal workers and recipients can see inside. The company says it is working to develop more products to increase the security and safety of the mail.
- Absolutely include a clear, legible return address. Use the company logo in the return address or somewhere on the envelope, and/or a DMA or Ad Council logo. Also include a toll-free number or URL on the envelope, where recipients can find the same information in another format in case they are too afraid to open their mail.
- Avoid "handwritten" typefaces in addresses and labels.
- Complement the mailing effort with an e-mail or phone campaign that alerts customers to the mail they will be receiving.
- Use safety seals on envelopes; shrink-wrap packaged products and publications. Avoid inserts that can make mailings "lumpy."
- Use personalized addresses instead of sending mail to "Occupant."
Powder Between Pages
Producers of direct-mail aren't the only publishers facing a challenge in this era of anthrax-contaminated mail. So are publications and their printers, which have long sprayed fine white powders -- typically derived from corn, potatoes, or other grains -- in the pages of their jobs. These anti-setoff agents, as they're called, act like tiny ball-bearings on freshly printed pages, allowing wet ink to dry before the next sheet touches it. Spray-based powders also allow pages to line up easily for binding and reduce static cling when publications are slid into plastic bags for mailing.
While using corn starch or other spray powders is a normal part of the print manufacturing process, customers have suddenly become aware of it and many magazine and newspaper publishers and their printers have been fielding panicky calls. According to the Wall Street Journal, the CEO of Reader's Digest Association was awoken by police early one recent Saturday morning because a subscriber mistakenly feared the cornstarch in her magazine was anthrax; a Midwestern Walmart store was reportedly temporarily closed because of a similar fear about the starch in the magazines on its newsstands. Indeed, 15 percent of respondents to the CLT Research study are concerned that marketing inserts in magazines may transfer anthrax.
Appeasing customer fears is a priority, and has direct repercussions on publishers' and printers' bottom lines. Many magazine publishers, including Conde Nast have sworn off cornstarch; so have some printers, including (whenever possible) RR Donnelley. Others are looking into alternatives, such as silicon-based products.
But as Jeff Adrian, director of environment and safety at the commercial printer John Roberts Company, adroitly points out, "The problem isn't the powder itself, it's fear." Adrian says his company isn't going to stop using spray powders because it would impede the efficiency of the production process and the quality of final printed materials. Rather, the company is taking steps to reduce customers' anxiety. "We feel that imparting knowledge to our customers is the key factor to eliminating fear," Adrian says.
To that end, the John Roberts Company has committed itself to responding to customers' queries on an individual and personalized basis. It also includes an advisory in shipments explaining that the powder on the included materials is normal and innocuous, and has put a similar advisory on the environmental page of its Web site.
Other steps that John Roberts Company considered -- and which you can discuss with your printer -- are whether or how to modify packaging to either prevent tampering or at least show when tampering has occurred; options include security tape and one-time cable-tie bag closures. It's a good idea, too, to talk with your printer about their plant security and safety procedures, such as restricting visitors' access to areas where mail is prepared. Knowledge is power, and if you know these things you and your customers will be reassured.
Not Chump Change
The impact of the public's fears about anthrax-contaminated mail is nothing to scoff at. Direct mail is a $528 billion industry; according to the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), anthrax is now a bigger concern to direct marketers than postal-rate increases. Meanwhile, a recent informal study by the Printing Industries of America (PIA) found that 75 percent of printers have felt a "moderate" or "severe" impact on their operations in the wake of the events of September 11 and anthrax-tainted mailings, resulting in $6 billion in lost sales and $1.5 billion in lost profits. So even though the public's fears are grossly out of proportion with the actual threat--only 5 contaminated letters have actually been identified and fewer than two dozen cases of infection have resulted--it's incumbent on the graphic arts industry to mitigate that anxiety as much as possible.
For more information about anthrax and the printing industry, you can visit any or all of the following Web sites:
- GATF: Click on What's New to access the Anthrax Resource Guide for Printers.
- Direct Marketing Association: The library has several white papers on the topic.
- Centers for Disease Control: It has a complete section with health and disease information.
- OSHA: This section of the site has occupational safety issues.
- Magazine Publishers of America: The site has compiled most publishing-related anthrax information.
Read more by Anita Dennis.