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September 2004

DMA Alert for Marketers: Envelope Copy Must be Honest

Getting your promotion’s outer envelope opened is one of the biggest hurdles in direct mail. If consumers don’t open the envelope, the promotion doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that.

Combine this reality with the fact that response rates have been declining for many mailers for some time now, and you have a situation where mailers must continually search for new and creative ways to get that envelope opened and make it stand out among the competition. In the end, we hope to avoid that dreaded point of no return…the wastebasket or recycling bin! But sometimes creativity can go too far.

The DMA, as a business association, is, of course, sensitive to the needs of our industry to persistently try to be inventive so that direct mail continues to be a viable, cost-effective source of business. We have, however, through the Committee on Ethical Business Practice, one of DMA’s peer-review ethics panels, seen many consumer complaints alleging deceptive envelope copy. It appears that some marketers are using outer envelope teaser copy that relies on calculated consumer misunderstanding to get the envelope opened.

When developing promotional materials, marketers must be sure to maintain consumer trust along with creating consumer interest, thus doing the right thing when it comes to getting promotional messages across. The following points are of critical importance in maintaining a positive perception of our industry in the eyes of consumers, regulators and legislators.

  • Marketers should make sure that what the copy on the outer envelope says – or implies – gets just as much internal advertising review as the promotion inside the envelope. While we recognize that most consumers these days will need creative copy and an incentive to take a look inside, as in all things ethical, there is a right – and a wrong – way to encourage consumers to open your offer. Tricking, misleading, or deceiving a recipient into opening an envelope is definitely not an effective long-term business strategy, and is unethical in the eyes of The DMA.

  • Promotions employing the following techniques are questionable from an ethical point of view:
  • Outer envelopes that appear as though they are coming from a government agency when they’re not. “Official-looking” seals and logos, design and color of the envelope create the misimpression that the mailing is in reference to a matter concerning a government entity.

  • Copy on an outer envelope that implies there is an existing business relationship, or specific “existing account relationship,” when none yet exists. Recipients expect the contents to be important information concerning their existing accounts, and may feel “duped” when instead encountering an offer for prospective customers.

  • Promotional mailing envelopes that convey a sense of emergency that does not exist. Creating a package that appears to be express mail, including delivery-tracking numbers, “urgent” warnings and “alerts,” for example, could easily confuse recipients by exaggerating the package’s urgency or importance.


  • Marketers are encouraged to review The DMA Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice (www.the-dma.org/guidelines/ethicalguidelines.shtml) and our Do the Right Thing compliance guide (www.the-dma.org/guidelines/dotherightthing.pdf). When developing new creative copy, make it part of your standard procedure to review the new copy against these Guidelines and from the consumer’s point of view. When creating copy and offers, it is essential to be accurate in all representations outside and inside the envelope.
As Congress continues to put more pressure on marketers in all media, self-regulation becomes vital in preserving our freedom to directly engage consumers. The DMA strongly urges marketers to review all promotional envelope copy with these thoughts in mind.

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