Confessions of a Junk Mail Junkie

By Mordechai (Morty) Schiller

At last!... Finally we can come out of the closet! No longer do we have to whisper what we do for a living. Finally the industry has accepted “junk mail” writers.

But let’s back up a bit. You know, one of the hardest things for copywriters to deal with is explaining to outsiders what we do for a living. For instance, I’m always having to tell people, “No, I don’t arrange copyrights from Washington.”

From Madison Ave. Chic to Third Class Mail

I used to say I work in “advertising.” But that’s too vague. It only raises more questions than it answers. What’s more, “advertising” bestows a false aura of Madison Avenue chic on writers like us. People still think of a Clark Gable huckster spending his last 20 bucks on a “sincere looking” tie... or Cary Grant’s Mr. Blandings puffing a pipe for six months trying to come up with a slogan for Wham ham. Life’s just not that glamorous in the real trenches of the marketing front.

Do you tell people you’re in “direct marketing”? That just gets too many blank stares. I switched to saying “I’m in the mail order business.” But that still left me giving long-winded lectures on distribution channels and database segmentation. Clearly there had to be a simpler answer—a grabber headline that would drive home the message in one blow. So, I started to simply say, “I write junk mail.”

The trouble with that was it became like living on the intersection of Desolation Row and the Lost Highway—the shadow existence of being a professional in a profession where your own trade journals refuse to print what you do for a living!

Then, at long last, DM News declared “junk mail” acceptable. But one or two grand masters of the art still denounced the term as a slur. An indignity like “junk mail,” they felt, would turn off Harvard Business School students from considering direct marketing as a career. Well, I still believe that it’s bucks, not terminology that attracts MBA’s.

Those of us who’ve fought in the trenches of marketing warfare know that advertising is not education. It’s taking what’s already in people’s minds and directing it to whatever you’re selling. And, like it or not, in people’s minds what we produce is “junk mail”! Don’t even bother to try to educate them. Just convince them to buy. Selling well is the ultimate revenge.

I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but I can’t spend time worrying about labels like “junk mail.” The only thing I have time for is getting people to respond to my writing and buy. I don’t care what they call it.

I Started Out Clean

Of course, I might be more respectable if I had studied advertising and direct marketing at some ivy league university. But I didn’t. In college I studied sociology. (How’s that for being purely academic?) I got my start in mail order when I was a kid.... in a bathtub.

  • FLASHBACK: A plump seven-year-old sits in a bathtub in a Brooklyn tenement. He’s playing with a red plastic Superman Krypton Rocket. He fills it with water and them pumps it up with air. Then, bringing the rocket carefully into position, he pulls the release on the pump and it soars—“jet propelled”—with enough power to launch it 300 feet up into the air! Of course, the bathroom does not have a 300-foot high ceiling. But the rocket ricochets nicely off the ceiling and walls. Thank heaven, it doesn’t smash into the light or mirror. Otherwise, a brilliant career might be cut short
  • I drift back to that scene not only out of warm nostalgia. There’s more here than warm fuzzies. That cherished Superman Krypton Rocket was my first MAIL ORDER purchase. I got it by mailing 50¢ and two Kellogg’s box tops to Battle Creek Michigan (even the name sounded important—like military headquarters). Then I w-a-i-t-e-d. Finally, one day, while the other kids in the tenement were outside playing skelly or punchball, my pudgy hands were wrestling with the wrapping of a package that came in the mail—addressed to ME! Corrugated ecstasy! I was hooked forever.
  • In those pristine days before the Internet, credit cards, 800 numbers, or even ZIP codes, that package in the mail was enough to launch me into mail order heaven.

    Next came the precursor of the survival knife—my handy-dandy Rin Tin Tin Wonder Scope. This early pre-technological marvel had even the Swiss Army knife concept beat: No blades, but in about three inches (folded down) it included a telescope, binoculars, microscope, compass, distress signaler... and a few more essential tools I can’t remember. No doubt, my Wonder Scope—along with my Captain Video signal ring—contributed greatly to my survival in the wilds of Brooklyn’s streets.

    Soon, though, the habit started getting really serious. It wasn’t long before I was waiting for the mailman (remember those? they lived before the age of “letter carriers”) to bring me my latest haul from the Johnson Smith catalog.

    That’s where I got my precision-weighted professional throwing knife, together with the book How to Throw Knives by (I’m not making this up) Elmer Putts. The catalog itself, though—for 10¢ and a comic-book coupon—gave me far more hours of enjoyment than any of the “junk” I ever bought from it. But I still feel a trace of that same old thrill every time I get a package delivered.

    Junk Mail Junkie

    And then came that fateful day: I found out I may have already won $100,000.00! I haven’t been the same ever since. My habit went way beyond just buying by mail. I soon went from a Mail Order Junkie to a Junk Mail Junkie. I started mainlining mail—getting my name on all kinds of mailing lists from coast to coast. I wanted it all: Dizzying phantasmagorias of sweepstakes dream prizes... to promises of the hardest, coldest cash. And all I had to do was return the winning number!

    But one day I found a desperately scribbled note in my mailbox. It was from my letter carrier. It said “BOX TOO SMALL!” Not only that, but I discovered that he was also totally confused by all those strange (decoy) names getting mail at my address. Somehow, though, a big new mailbox... and a crisp $20 bill... helped unconfuse him.

    Six Years On Line

    (no, I said “On Line”... not Online!)

    Too tell you the truth, though, little-boy fantasies—and professional interest in what others are doing—are not the only reason I still buy by mail. I really hate shopping. One of my favorite ways NOT to spend a day is breathing carbon monoxide, looking for parking, waiting on line, speaking to rude, ignorant sales clerks and then waiting on line again for the privilege of getting a credit card or check OK’d.

    An interesting statistic I came across: We spend six years of our life standing on line! (Hey. I did that in one night in the old Alexander’s Department Store.) So it’s no wonder I buy clothes, shoes, stationery, office supplies, software, books, cassettes, videos, magazines, toys, housewares—and even what used to be called “unmentionables”—by mail or on the Web.

    And it’s no wonder I earn my living by writing junk mail. You might say it’s the ultimate How to Win Customers and Influence People!

    This article appeared in DM News’ “DM Views” opinion column


    © 2001-2008 Mordechai (Morty) Schiller

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