Fighting Junk Mail via 'Do Not Mail' Lists: Devilish Details and Front Groups

Buried in junk mail...what to do?A recent blog about the pro-junk mail lobby and its front group, Mail Moves America, drew many comments. Mail Moves America is a coalition of businesses that oppose efforts to create a legislated "Do Not Mail" list to protect citizens from being showered with unwanted junk mail,Junk mail is clearly a hot topic that arouses strong emotions on all sides. As electronic mail moves closer to overtaking paper mail as the medium of choice for written communication, it is clear that the Post Office remains an essential way to communicate and transfer goods. Still, many people are overwhelmed with junk mail and have little idea how to stop it.

Could a "Do Not Mail" list have unintended consequences?

Efforts to promote a national "Do Not Mail" list were spearheaded by ForestEthics, an environmental organization working to slow destruction of the Canadian Boreal Forest. The idea instantly took hold. For beleaguered consumers, a "Do Not Mail" list certainly sounds attractive: just sign up and junk mail would magically stop. But it isn't hard to imagine that such a list could also have unintended consequences. If someone blocked mail to a rented address, then moved and failed to notify the Post Office, for example, what problems could that pose for the new occupants? Since a Do Not Mail database would by its nature be extremely fluid, who would maintain that database, and how would that maintenance be funded? Writing and passing a Do Not Mail law at the federal level could, given the powerful lobbies involved, result in pro-industry legislation filled with loopholes that would permit junk mailers to continue business as usual.

The status quo is unacceptable

While creating a Do Not Mail list could present as many problems as solutions, the current "solutions" that marketers and others point to for reducing junk mail can also be intimidating and are simply inadequate. A few blog commentators pointed to the Direct Marketing Association's "Mail Preference Service" (MPS) as a solution. In addition to being poorly promoted and unknown to most consumers, the MPS can also be intimidating to use, and is fraught with annoying obstacles. The MPS Web site tells users they have to enter a credit card number to "authenticate and validate the consumer's identity through a no-charge transaction." Placing such sensitive personal financial information on the Web is a deal-breaker for many people, particularly older consumers. If you want to avoid using the Internet, you can register with MPS through the mail, but you have to print out a registration form, fill it in, mail it to DMA and include one dollar, in the form of a check or money order only. This is another annoying obstacle, particularly for people who have to go out and purchase a money order. And why should anyone have to pay to stop getting something they didn't want in the first place? To stop getting catalogs, MPS requires that you enter the exact name of every single catalog you want to stop receiving. Who keeps unwanted catalogs around, much less lists of them? MPS does not appear to cover nonprofit mailings, so to get names off nonprofit mailing lists, consumers have to contact each individual nonprofit by calling long distance to non-toll-free numbers, or sending first-class letters or postcards -- all at one's own expense. Other Web sites that offer to reduce junk mail tell the user to enter the customer number from each unwanted catalog's mailing label -- which again, people are unlikely to keep. Still other sites want $50 or more for their services.

Reducing junk mail clearly requires a substantial investment of effort, planning, time and money. DMA's "Mail Preference Service," and other services, just don't seem like adequate solutions to the problem.

Corporate practices contribute to the junk mail problem

At least some of the junk mail problem can be traced to corporate policies that generate unwanted mail. Those little white pamphlets full of "mice type" that credit card companies periodically mail to account holders, for example, usually have buried inside a very misleadingly-named "Privacy Policy" that says the company intends to share your personal information with other businesses unless you opt out. Opting out requires filling in a form, putting an account number on it, and mailing it back to the company at your own expense, with no return envelope provided. Most people don't read these pamphlets, let alone go to the required level of effort to opt out, rendering this a practice that clearly breeds unwanted mail. Instead, companies could simply make "opt out" the default, and invite customers to "opt in" if they want to get more ads. This small change could assure that the company's future mailings are targeted to a far more receptive audience, with less of their mailings ending up in the trash. If companies voluntarily changed such policies, they could avoid legislation forcing them to do it. In an era where actual "green" corporate behavior is rare and highly prized by the public, such a worthwhile policy change could serve as a significant public relations and marketing coup.

Companies also constantly entice consumers with tempting special offers, coupons and discounts that are linked to address-harvesting schemes. In exchange for a discount, an offer of a freebie or the "chance" to win a big-ticket item, consumers are conned into turning over their personal contact information, which then lands them on innumerable mailing lists. Once you give money to a nonprofit organization, your name is often bought, sold, traded and circulated among innumerable other organizations who also then solicit you through the mail. Some refer to this as getting on the "sucker list." Information on how to avoid giving up personal information and ending up on this mail merry-go-round isn't readily available. There really is no practical education made available about how to recognize and avoid address-harvesting schemes, and such schemes just add to the ever-increasing junk mail burden we all must bear.

But a Do Not Mail list would make the Post Office go broke!

SnailmailBy some estimates, the Post Office derives 80% of its revenue from junk mail, leading some to argue that a Do Not Mail list will put the Post Office out of business. A similar theory was advanced by the tobacco industry and its allies for decades to stall the advance of smoke-free laws. We were told, over and over again by a variety of experts and studies, that ending smoking in bars and restaurants would drive businesses into the ground. It turned out that wasn't the case. Most people wanted smoke-free bars and restaurants, and experience has now shown time and time again that after a smoke-free law goes into effect, there is an initial shock while people figure out how to deal with the new situation, and then business returns, often better than before.

The same will probably be true of a Do Not Mail list. When fax machines were invented, no one argued against using them because they would hurt the Post Office. No one is saying don't use email because it hurts the Post Office. Fed Ex and UPS do hurt the Post Office, but no one is arguing they should be banned. All of these products and services exist because there is a demand for them. Blocking people from obtaining some form of control over the kind of mail they receive wastes time, money and resources, and is probably a futile exercise in the long run, since the demand for such control is strong and growing.

Let's also not forget the fact that the Post Office has been losing money even without a Do Not Mail list, as evidenced by rapidly increasing postal rates in recent years. The Post Office is run as a for-profit business, and it appears to be clinging tightly to a losing business model. Perhaps it is time for the Post Office start figuring how it can better serve people in the Twenty First Century, and what services they could provide that people really do want. One thing is for certain: it sure isn't more junk mail.

Viable alternatives to a Do Not Mail List?

There may be viable alternatives to a Do-Not-Mail bill that are more targeted, and achieve the same ends, but with fewer unintended consequences: Congress could pass a law requiring that all advertising mail be accompanied by a pre-paid postcard, or bear a toll-free number (in a minimum size font) to opt out of the mailing list. The Post Office could also announce that it will stop delivering mail that is addressed only to "Occupant" or "Current Resident."

One commentator on the original junk mail blog brought up the case of Rowan v. the United States Post Office, decided in 1970, which arguably affirmed citizens' rights to refuse unsolicited advertising through the mail. Under Rowan, the Supreme Court held that the law "allows the addressee unreviewable discretion to decide whether he wishes to receive any further material from a particular sender" and that "a vendor does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone's home, and a mailer's right to communicate must stop at the mailbox of an unreceptive addressee." It would seem that all that is left under Rowan is for the Post Office to create a mechanism through which citizens can refuse unsolicited advertising in the mail. While Rowan gave people this right, the junk-addicted Post Office has not moved this forward.

So how can we promote serious consideration of a variety of options to solve this problem in a way that will really make a difference? For starters, people can file complaints about the junk mail problem, accompanied by proposed alternatives, at the Web site of Postal Regulatory Commission at You can also write to Nanci Langley, Director, Public Affairs and Government Relations, Postal Regulatory Commission, 901 New York Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20268-0001. The Postal Regulatory Commission is completely independent of the Postal Service, and handles broad complaints about the mail. I'm told they take complaints seriously. People who still think a Do Not Mail list is a good idea can sign a petition in favor of it at ForestEthics also offers an easy-to-use tool on their Web site to help reduce junk mail now, with no credit card required, and no fees.

If nothing else, efforts to enact a Do Not Mail list are drawing badly needed attention to the widespread desire of consumers "take back" their mail boxes from marketers and advertisers, and reduce the damaging amount of waste generated by junk mail. Sooner or later, one way or another, the people will achieve their goal.


Hi Rezzie... Appreciate your looking at my stuff, and I'd like to see your Junk Mail Revolt, but authorization is required so I couldn't get through. My e-mail address is if you want to contact me. Always interested when someone realizes the dangers of uncontrolled communication, especially when it involves so much sensitive data. That said, I am not sure a blanket Do-Not-Mail law, covering everything and everybody, is the right approach. First, not likely this stringent of legislation will pass in states or on the federal level; second, there are those who want junk mail; and three, a lot of the non-profits use it. Perhaps none of these reasons will seem justification to some for the avalanche of junk mail we receive, and nothing is justification for the way junk mailers collect, manipulate, and lose our personal data. So that is the reason I came up with my concept over three years ago to pass federal legislation to grant consumers control over their names and private information, and compensate them when it is sold as incentive to assume this new responsibility. However, only a grass-roots consumer movement can get the job done, and currently apathy over this issue (it could never happen to me) is still prevalent. But you and others are making a difference, so keep up the good work! Jack Jack E. Dunning The Dunning Letter Cave CREEK, AZ

<blockquote>I'd like to see your Junk Mail Revolt, but authorization is required so I couldn't get through</blockquote> Hi Jack, The website launches on Monday, so stay tuned. <blockquote>That said, I am not sure a blanket Do-Not-Mail law, covering everything and everybody, is the right approach.</blockquote> Nobody here is advocating a blanket Do Not Mail law. We're pushing for an opt-out solution, similar to the Do Not Call registry that's currently regulating telemarketers. It's a very moderate and reasonable compromise that only affects those who sign up for it. <blockquote>First, not likely this stringent of legislation will pass in states or on the federal level; second, there are those who want junk mail; and three, a lot of the non-profits use it.</blockquote> An opt-out registry would only restrict mail for those who choose to opt out. It would likely pass in Congress, and be upheld by the Supreme Court, on the same legal grounds as the Do Not Call registry. Also, non-profits are likely to be exempt. <blockquote>So that is the reason I came up with my concept over three years ago to pass federal legislation to grant consumers control over their names and private information, and compensate them when it is sold as incentive to assume this new responsibility.</blockquote> I think it's a great idea. Have you checked out the literature on the subject? Others have proposed similar things in the past. For instance, I recently read an article called "Marketing Without Consent" by Ross D. Petty (2000). I'll email it to you if you'd like. I don't think our two projects are mutually exclusive. Your idea has a much broader scope in terms of privacy rights and ownership of personal information, whereas my focus, for the moment, is simply on direct mail solicitations. <blockquote>However, only a grass-roots consumer movement can get the job done</blockquote> I completely agree. Rezzie Dannt [ Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

Hi again Rezzie... Sounds like you have a plan. And looking forward to the Monday Revolt. Re. the "blanket" coverage, although I don't know the text of all state laws written on Do-Not-Mail, some of them do rule out all mail, except for political and charities. But we probably both agree that the state route is too cumbersome, and legislation should be at the federal level. The FTC's Do-Not-Call list has been a huge success, but it came at a time when consumers were so exasperated by telemarketers that they would have done anything to stop them. I am not sure you can correlate interrupted dinners and the general nusiance of unwanted telephone calls with unwanted mail that can just be thrown away. However, you should be encouraged by ForestEthics success in their DNM campaign: 40,321 signups as of today. I am anxious to hear more about the specifics of your campaign, but it sounds like you are definitely moving in the right direction. In my case, I just want to take it to the top by giving the consumer control. By the way, this idea has been floating for over ten years; I first introduced it to my junk mail colleagues over ten years ago as a way to help eliminate waste, and actually give junk mailers a way to better target customers who want their offers. (The concept includes an opt-in only for mail, and can differentiate interest categories) Pretty soon I was becoming an outcast, and eventually left the business. Consumer Reports has advocated consumer control over financial data, and I even got Proctor & Gamble to say they felt their customers should have control over their names and private information. But we are all on the right track by attempting to take back our rightful control from the junk mail companies who think they own our names and personal data. Good luck launching Junk Mail Revolt! Jack

Hi Jack, <blockquote>But we probably both agree that the state route is too cumbersome, and legislation should be at the federal level.</blockquote> I prefer legislation at the federal level, in part because there's some question as to whether states have the legal authority to regulate the Postal Service. However, to a lesser extent, I also support state initiatives because they generate press for the cause and may help pave the way for federal action. <blockquote>I am not sure you can correlate interrupted dinners and the general nusiance of unwanted telephone calls with unwanted mail that can just be thrown away.</blockquote> I don't know, Jack. In a 1999 Harris poll, junk mail topped the list of consumer annoyances ([ 1]). That's right, junk mail was more despised than telemarketing. Bear in mind, this poll was taken prior to Do Not Call, at a time when people received significantly less junk mail than they do today. Also, fewer people were online, so snail mail's benefit-to-cost ratio was higher than it is now (i.e. the mail formerly provided more value for less hassle). In terms of which is more annoying, it's really a matter of opinion. After all, which is worse - interrupted dinner or planetary destruction? Not only does junk mail have serious environmental costs, but our tax dollars pay for its removal. Not so with telemarketing calls. Furthermore, junk mail is harder to avoid than a phone call. You can't unplug your mailbox, and there's no Caller ID for it either. Also, I would argue that junk mail can't "just be thrown away." You have to carry it from your mailbox, sift through it to make sure there's nothing important, shred anything that might put you at risk for identity theft, throw it out, lug it to the curb, then pay the government to take it away. While you can "just hang up" on telemarketers, you can't "just throw out" junk mail. Furthermore, those seconds "just throwing out" junk mail add up. The average American receives over 800 pieces of junk mail every year. Over the course of a lifetime, that amounts to months of stolen time. I don't know about you, but I'd rather use my precious time on this earth in other ways. Also, let's remember to multiply this theft over a couple hundred million people. <blockquote>I am anxious to hear more about the specifics of your campaign</blockquote> It's very simple. We're asking people to save their junk mail, then ship thousands of boxes of it to Congress in a synchronized fashion. We'll also be flooding D.C. with phone calls, emails, and faxes. It will all be highly choreographed to maximize impact. We'll rinse and repeat until Congress takes action. <blockquote>Pretty soon I was becoming an outcast, and eventually left the business.</blockquote> Well, your philosophy isn't exactly compatible with corporate greed. Enjoy the weekend, Rezzie Dannt [ Junk Mail Revolt] (Launches May 12, 2008)

Congratulations on the launching of the Junk Mail Revolt. The site looks great and seems well organized as well as comprehensive. I wish you lots of luck in sign-ups. Will you keep the public posted on your success numbers? I plan a blog on your site, hopefully Friday of this week. Please keep me posted on special happenings that I can blog about. Good luck! Jack Jack E. Dunning The Dunning Letter Cave Creek, AZ