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Commentary: Marketing flyers still useful in a digital age, but we need better controls against waste, unsolicited mail

Advertisers still see mailers as an integral part of an overall marketing strategy. But in this age of environmental awareness, it is vital that we review our existing practices and see if improvements can be made.

Before we consider how we may wish to collectively address this issue, it is interesting to see how other jurisdictions have dealt with it.

In the United States, there is no national prohibition on unsolicited physical mail, which is also referred to as “direct mail”. 

This may be due to the fact that their courts have held that unsolicited mailing of leaflets by commercial advertisers is speech protected by the First and 14th Amendments of their Constitution.

Nevertheless, there are ongoing citizen petitions to demand that their postal agencies offer an “opt-out” method to stop such unsolicited direct mail.

In the United Kingdom, it is also not illegal for advertisers to send unsolicited mail, unless the material is obscene or threatening. However, individuals who do not wish to receive unsolicited addressed mail can register to have their names removed from mailing lists.

Cities such as Barcelona and Vienna have taken matters a step further. Local authorities have distributed “anti-advertising” or “no junk mail” stickers for residents to affix to mail boxes, which are supposed to serve as a form of notice to delivery personnel and therefore reduce the amount of advertising materials placed in mailboxes.

A CALL FOR ACTION

As we can see from the experiences of other jurisdictions, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to combating the scourge of junk mail. 

Besides the consideration of public expectations and the role of the authorities, it might also be appropriate to consider whether there is some room for direct mail to be retained for those who wish to receive it. 

For example, the preferences of the resident in receiving direct mail could be recorded in an online database similar to the DNC Registry. 

Just like how sending telemarketing messages to numbers listed on the DNC Registry without consent is currently made an offence, this approach could also possibly be extended to unsolicited direct mail.

To be sure, there could be some difficulties in enforcement, given that it may be harder to trace those who leave direct mail compared to those who send telemarketing messages. 

However, adopting a permission-based approach supported by relevant laws would likely have a strong deterrent effect for would-be infringers, and significantly reduce the amount of junk mail that residents would receive.

Some research studies have found that where direct mail is targeted, well designed, and implemented in ways which are respectful of the preferences of the recipient, it can be a helpful marketing and communication channel which is well received by consumers, especially in industries such as tourism, health and wellness. 

To conclude, we are living in a time where we all need to do our part to combat climate change. 

Waste prevention, or at least waste reduction, is a good starting point, and we have already taken bold steps in this direction, with our collective efforts to phase out single-use plastics such as straws and shopping bags.

It is timely to address the wasteful practices associated with physical marketing materials.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Cheng Kwang Hwee is a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), with research interests in contract law and business management. Joicey Wei is a senior lecturer at SUSS, with research interests in social marketing and marketing strategy. These are their own views.

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