I just saw 'Why hate junk mail?', Panorama's programme about junk and scam mail. It's unusual the two subjects are dealt with together, and I reckon it didn't quite work. Junk mail and scam mail are two completely different things; the first is a legitimate (and wasteful, and annoying) form of advertising, the second a criminal activity. 'Why hate junk mail?' tried to link the two by investigating if Royal Mail would survive without junk mail and to what extend the company knowingly benefits from distributing scam mail. Covering junk mail, scam mail, and all the issues surrounding Royal Mail just isn't doable in 29 minutes of television.
The part of the programme that dealt with scams was alright, I thought. It explained how Royal Mail makes money from distributing scams, and it correctly stated Royal Mail is currently working with the Metropolitan Police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency in what is called 'Operation Sterling'. Panorama could perhaps have delved into the issue a bit deeper. In particular, the programme didn't mention that until recently both Royal Mail and Spring Global Mail flatly refused to "police" mail streams. 'Why hate junk mail?' didn't really raise the question how seriously Royal Mail takes the fight against scam mail. The fact that the company refused to speak with Panorama could have been used to investigate to what extend the company is indeed "addicted" to the revenue it earns from distributing illegal mail.
For me the part about junk mail was of course more interesting. And, to be frank, I felt this was poorly done. Particularly offending is that the Direct Marketing Association's claim that 'direct mail' contributes £16 billion to the UK economy was not questioned. A missed opportunity as the junk mail lobby group wouldn't have been able to substantiate its claim. I suspect the (secret) calculation the Direct Marketing Association has done makes the assumption that if there's less junk mail there'll be less advertising. This would of course be a non-starter. Any decrease in junk mail volumes are likely to be compensated by an increase in other types of advertising. And that, I would argue, can only be a good thing as junk mail is a very environmentally unsound type of advertising.
Panorama: presenting facts from trustworthy sources?
Similarly, Richard Hooper's claim that Royal Mail would not survive without advertising mail wasn't challenged. Yet, Mr Hooper's argument contained a rather obvious logical error: he based his assertion on a scenario in which advertising mail doesn't exist. This suggests more than just a little bit of bias, as nobody is actually making the case for a ban on junk mail. The 'junk mail issue' is that advertising mail is often poorly targeted (and therefore unwanted, and wasteful) and that people who want to reduce junk mail often find it impossible to do so. The key question - which was not asked - is this: would Royal Mail loose revenue if the industry would make it easier for people to stop and prevent unwanted mail? Or, to keep it particularly relevant to Royal Mail: would the company loose money if it would start encouraging householders not interested in unsolicited leaflets to register with its Door-to-Door Opt-Out?
An interesting question indeed (you're still awake, aren't you?). I would argue that encouraging junk mail haters to opt out would help Royal Mail. Force feeding people junk mail just isn't going to work. 'Direct mail' is never going to be serious competition for Google Adwords and other (relatively) new forms of advertising if it doesn't drastically improve targeting. And like it or not, improving targeting is going to involve asking people to say 'no' to things they don't want.
I would add to this that making it easier for people to reduce unwanted mail wouldn't even have a major effect on mail volumes. In countries where the junk mail issue has been sorted there's still a thriving 'direct mail' industry. In the Netherlands, for instance, you can stop all unaddressed mail by putting a freely available 'No Junk Mail' sticker on your door. The sticker scheme is well-established and well-publicised. Yet, less than 15% of Dutch letterboxes has got a sticker. In other words, the industry / Royal Mail isn't going to collapse if stopping unwanted mail is made easier. On the contrary, by actively supporting the sticker scheme the Dutch junk mail industry has effectively identified the people that are not one bit interested in junk mail, and by doing so it has improved targeting and made 'direct mail' a more attractive advertising medium for advertisers. It might not be entirely co-incidental that Dutch TNT Post is doing alright at a time when Royal Mail is struggling.
Any other complaints? Well yes… the programme didn't give any information about how to reduce junk mail. If anything, it would have been interesting to highlight the fact that stopping (and preventing) junk mail is incredibly complicated, and to query why this is so.
And yes, I have to declare an interest here. I was filmed giving instructions to Tom, the presenter, on how to stop all that junk mail he was getting (so he wouldn't need to turn his junk mail into briquets anymore). Frustratingly, this scene didn't survive the final cut; it was replaced with a bit more information about scam mail. I should be getting the unused footage at some point, and I will be editing it!