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The Federal Trade Commission's "deceptive marketing" checklist. (DM Notebook).

There are some techniques in direct marketing that go even beyond what a colleague used to call the "black side of the gray area." There are federal laws against "Social Security lookalike mailings," and the FTC and state regulators have so hedged sweepstakes with regulations that I fear I may never get another letter from Ed McMahon saying, "FRED GOSS YOU HAVE ALREADY WON!"

But the FTC has gone beyond this and issued a news release aimed at informing consumers about direct mail techniques they call "Masquer-Ads."

"Many of the advertising ploys that are fooling consumers fall into a legal gray area and are a lot tougher to challenge in the courts."

Tougher to challenge, I guess, because they aren't illegal.

Nonetheless, a number of techniques which I've seen used by newsletter marketers appear on the FTC hit list--what the commission terms "What to Watch for in Your Mailbox":

* Government-like logos or addresses that make the information look important

* Publication solicitations that look like renewal notices

* Checks that, if cashed, switch your telephone carrier

* Simulated checks that invite credit applications

* Companies or organizations with "sound-alike" names that play on the reputations of others

* Solicitations personalized with handwritten addresses or First Class stamps

* Mailings that imply a personal endorsement from someone you know

* Sales letters "disguised" as news stories or independent reviews

* Mock express delivery packages

* Endorsements with the word "advertising" inconspicuously placed or in tiny print.

Speaking of endorsements, be sure you have written permission from the people whose testimonials you use in your DM packages.

Evidently what really annoys the FTC is the handwritten post it note:


Try this

It's really good


The FTC even found a complainant whose boss's initial actually is "J." Thinking it was a directive, he rushed off an order for a $300 service.

I have two basic thoughts about this.

1. All of the techniques listed above are to some degree "deceptive." Times are hard in direct mail and they represent the efforts of the DM community to get attention to our wares from a public fatigued by advertising. If those of us in newsletter marketing deny this, we risk looking like the row of tobacco industry stooges denying any knowledge that their products were either habit-forming or a health risk.

2. The public is actually quite good, in general, in discerning what they are being offered. Look at the results from sweepstakes mailings. Very talented copywriters and designers do the absolute minimum legally required to inform prospects that they may enter without ordering and yet still more than 80 percent of their responses come without an order.

I don't know how their list missed two newsletter industry standards: the forced free trial, and "renewal notices" mailed long after expire. I expect just about everyone reading this has used DM some might find "deceptive":

* Ink-jetted closed face envelopes

* Envelopes with no return address (at least before the Antrax scare)

* Pre-cancelled "live" stamps on bulk-rate mailings.

* FREE Executive Report (See Inside).

What is the purpose of these? To get a mail-jaded prospect into the envelope.

My experience has been that there is nothing you can put in the mail that will not offend someone. There is a subset of people who appear to be offended simply by receiving a selling offer of any type in the mail.

Perhaps it's only because my ox is being gored, but it just seems to me that the FTC should have better things to do than to worry about handwritten envelopes carrying First Class postage that are actually sales pieces.
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Author:Goss, Fred
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:May 31, 2002
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