Of Jelly Donuts and Junk Mail

Did one of our Presidents claim he was a jelly donut? Of course not! Is targeted direct mail advertising junk? Of course not!

The story goes that when John Kennedy made his famous speech in Berlin back in 1963 he made a grammatical error – a Cold War show of solidarity turned confectionery.  Most of us are familiar with the speech, either through memory or memory of a high school history class, and its most dramatic moment:

“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum ['I am a Roman citizen']. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ …  All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’”

Over time some have suggested JFK should have said “Ich Bin Berliner!” (“I am a Berliner” – which would have been correct had Kennedy actually been from Berlin instead of Boston.)  The other bit of confusion arises from the name of a particular jelly-filled pastry known in Germany (but outside of Berlin) as a Berliner.

However, since Kennedy was speaking metaphorically … well … he really meant … well … he didn’t say he was a jelly donut, okay?

Anyway, as is sometimes the case the legend is far more entertaining than the reality and this one has gained some legs over the years.  All you have to do is Google “JFK jelly donut” and you get about 858,000 results.  I am willing to bet a college student could write a reasonably interesting and entertaining paper on exactly why we as a culture would have so much fun with this.

But, I didn’t come here today to write about jelly donuts.  I came to write about junk mail.  Or, better still, I came to write about the fiction that is junk mail and the genesis of direct mail advertising’s much maligned name.  You want an urban legend with legs?  Google “junk mail” – that’s 73,500,000 results.  (I’ll spare you the search:  “junk mail jelly donuts” gets you 895,000 results.  I’d imagine that would also make for an interesting college paper – but, since college ended over 20 years ago for me I’m off the hook.)

Here at the Completely Interesting Direct Marketing Blog we have discussed at length direct marketing and direct mail’s general awesomeness.  So let us begin with this in mind:  Direct mail remains the most cost-effective means of reaching your targeted audience. Period.  It is fact.

However, because direct marketing and direct mail are by their very nature targeted messages for a specific product or service sent to a specific (targeted!!!) audience, the idea of “direct mail” doesn’t have a means by which it can manage its message.  Think about how other media can promote itself:

  • Radio can talk about radio on the radio. (Seriously – have you ever listened to a Howard Stern show?  Back when I listened to him in the 90s, Howard spent the first 25 minutes of his show talking about … Howard!)
  • Television can devote all kinds of time to talking about television.  (30 Rock, anyone?)  The evening news shows will devote whole segments to how the evening news covers … the evening news!
  • Newspapers can run front-page stories about how they cover the news.

Make no mistake about it – radio, television, and newspapers may sound and look like they are in the business of entertaining or informing the general public, but, that’s really a myth, too.

Radio and television and newspapers are in the business of getting people to listen to or look at the messages from their paid sponsors.  Right?  These things exist to get people to watch commercials. The music and the shows and the news and the comics and the sports pages are all there with one thing in mind – attract eyeballs to the ads.  The more eyeballs seeing the ads mean more advertising revenue which means more profits.

Allow me to step sideways for a moment. I am a capitalist.  I love profit.  I am not saying radio, television, and newspapers are bad entities for wanting to make a profit.  Profit good.  Profit pays the bills.  Profit employs people.  Profit makes it work.  I’m all for it.  And I’ll go a step further – I read newspapers and magazines and occasionally watch television, but, I’ll bet most of you are just like me in that you are putting up with the commercials and ads in order to enjoy the content (the music, the shows, the news, whatever).  No one tunes in at 8:00 every night to watch the commercials. Yet, “junk commercials” is not part of our national vernacular.

Consider this:  Each of these media outlets is competing with other outlets for limited advertising dollars (if you’ll recall from Accounting 101, the concept of opportunity cost is a dollar spent in one manner is a dollar you can’t spend somewhere else).

So newspapers are competing with other newspapers and radio and TV and any other manner of paid advertising for business.  It’s the same for all the other types, too.  Makes sense, right?  Of course it does.

Direct mail falls into this mix. Direct mail competes with radio, television, newspapers, and magazines for the dollars of advertisers.

Now, no business in its right mind is going to send out a direct mail piece bashing newspaper advertising, for instance, because, well, that’d just be foolish.  A business will send out a direct mail piece advertising … itself!  That’s just smart!

But, here is where things get devious. The other media outlets can spend a little time here-and-there bashing direct mail.  Newspapers, in particular, spilled a lot of ink back in the 1950s as they faced a two-pronged attack with both the dawn of commercial television as a viable means of local advertising as well as the advent of simplified bulk mail rules.

In the course of ten years – between 1947 and 1957 – spending on direct mail increased almost 2.5 times and newspapers saw this (probably rightly so) as a threat to their bottom line.  So what did newspapers do?

Let’s turn to Richard Kielbowicz’s paper entitled Origins of the Junk-Mail Controversy: A
Media Battle over Advertising and Postal Policy
.  Page 8 explains exactly what the newspapers did:

“Newspapers retaliated by attacking direct mail’s value in print and before postal ratemakers, wielding the term “junk mail” regularly for the first time. In their campaign to scuttle the patron~mail experiment, newspapers devised several arguments that were later generalized for a continuing assault on all direct mail advertising. Some points made by the press were false, others were misleading, and all were expressed publicly without informing readers that newspapers stood to gain financially from a diminished direct mail industry.”

In technical terms, this was a total hack job and the hack job has continued unabated for over fifty years.  You don’t have to go back that far, either.

Back in 2003, the DMA was welcomed to Orlando for its annual conference with this headline from the Orlando Sentinel:  Spammers, Telemarketers Share Strategies.  It should go without saying (but, I will say it anyway) spamming has no part in the mission of the DMA and its members.

Also lost on the *ahem* reporter of this piece was the fact that the Orlando Sentinel at that time used telemarketing in order to build it’s subscriber base.  But, again, the fiction remains more entertaining than the reality.

We as direct marketers simply cannot take the myths spread by our self-promoting competitors seriously.  We have to remember we bring value to our customers and we help our customers bring value to their customers.  Junk mail is a myth. Businesses promoting themselves to create profit – profit that can then be turned into jobs and a healthy economy – that is the reality.

So, my fellow marketers, today, in the world of advertising, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Direct Marketer!”  All marketers, wherever they may live, need to be a Direct Marketer, and, therefore, as a business man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Direct Marketer!

Tim Burnell

About Tim Burnell

Tim Burnell, principal owner of Complete Medical Lists, has been helping clients reach their targeted markets through direct channels for over 20 years. He believes offering high quality data and unsurpassed service are the keys to Complete Medical’s success. He also believes all his CDs should be alphabetized by artist and then sorted by release date. Except for the Beatle CDs. They get sorted before all others.
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