As per 1 March 2011 the remit of Advertising Standards Authority was extended to include online advertising, including marketing messages on websites. This finally gave me the opportunity to challenge the claim on the Mailing Preference Service website that registering with the service will "remove your name from up to 95% of direct mail lists". I'm pleased to say I won the case; the Direct Marketing Association has agreed to remove the claim from its website.
My argument was that the claim breached the CAP Code (short for UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sale Promotion and Direct Marketing - an interesting acronym indeed) because the figure of 95% was misleading and could not be substantiated.
Misleading and unsubstantiated porky pies
Let's start with the misleading bit. The Direct Marketing Association's claim suggested that registering with the Mailing Preference Service will almost obliterate personally addressed advertisements. This isn't quite true. For starters, only members of the Direct Marketing Association are obliged to check if people on their mailing list are registered with the Mailing Preference Service. Whereas there's a legal requirement for telemarketers to check if phone numbers have been registered with the Telephone Preference Service there's no such equivalent for junkmarketers. The Mailing Preference Service is a voluntary, laissez-faire industry scheme. There are lots and lots of companies and (in particular) charities out there that don't check if people have opted out of receiving junk mail.
Equally important, people's personal details are often added to mailing databases as a result of failing to tick one of those pesky, microscopically small opt-out boxes that can prevent their details are used for 'direct marketing' purposes. It wouldn't surprise me at all if it's the case that the majority of people listed in marketing databases never meant to 'opt in' and would have opted out if only they'd been given a fair change of spotting the opt-out box. These people don't want to be targeted by junk mailers, but because they have effectively 'opted in' the Mailing Preference Service isn't going to stop the unwanted junk mail.
The 95%-claim was misleading for another reason. The Direct Marketing Association quoted what it believed to be the 'maximum removal rate' (95%). On it's own, without any context, this information is useless. Before I hand over my personal details to the Mailing Preference Service I'd want to know what the average and minimum removal rates are. The maximum removal rate alone isn't going to give me much of an idea as to how effective the Mailing Preference Service is - for all I know the figure of 95% might be a mere theoretical construct.
Which, of course, is exactly what the 95%-claim was. Marketeers make a living out of telling these sort of half-truths. There wasn't any correlation between the maximum and (unknown) average and minimum removal rates. Instead of giving the public the information they need to make an informed decision about registering with the Mailing Preference Service - that is, honest information about how effective the service is - the Direct Marketing Association was telling porky pies.
The complaint that the 95%-figure couldn't be substantiated doesn't need much comment. Figures that are false just can't be substantiated.
The new half-truth?
The paragraph on the Mailing Preference Service website that contained the false claim has been rewritten a couple of times since the claim was removed last month. It currently reads:
The MPS will prevent the receipt of unsolicited direct mailings sent from member companies of the Direct Marketing Association and we will take steps to prevent the receipt of unsolicited direct mailings from companies which are non-DMA members. It will not stop mail that has been sent from overseas, un-addressed material or mail addressed to The Occupier. You can expect to continue to receive mailings from companies with whom you have done business in the past. You may also receive mailings from small, local companies. If you wish these mailings to be stopped, you must notify these companies directly. It will take up to 4 months for the Service to have full effect although you should notice a reduction in mail during this period.
An interesting addition is "and we will take steps to prevent the receipt of unsolicited direct mailings from companies which are non-DMA members." Perhaps the Direct Marketing Association has seen the light and decided it should become a legal requirement for all junk mailers to check if people have opted out?