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Watchdog Daily explains how to stop Virgin Media junk mail

22nd November 2012

I just watched episode 7 of Watchdog Daily, a BBC programme in which Sophie Raworth takes on the big household-names and shows viewers how to fight for their consumer rights. One of the items was the 'To the Occupier' loophole.

What had inspired the coverage was the 'news' that almost half of all mail distributed by Royal Mail is now junk mail. Even though it seems Watchdog had looked at my website (they quoted some statistics from the Junk mail facts pages) they hadn't noticed that the story that appeared in the Daily Mail and Telegraph last week was utter nonsense. Unfortunately, it wasn't the only piece of misinformation on the programme… (I'm afraid this is going to be yet another rant about sloppy journalism)

Understanding basic concepts: addressed != unaddressed and 2.4

After Sophie had presented us with the junk mail stats she showed an envelope with this address:

The Occupier
201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ

In case you're wondering, it's the address of one of the BBC offices. Even the BBC gets send junk mail! Anyway, according to Sophie the letter is unaddressed. Why? […] because although it has your house and road details, it doesn't have your name. Instead, it says 'The Occupier'.


Sophie! Watchdog! For Heaven's Sake! I know 'To the Occupier' junk mail is difficult to get your head round but it's really not that complicated. If it includes an address, it's addressed. If it doesn't include an address, it's unaddressed. That's all there's to it.

Sophie went on to explain that the alleged dramatic increase in junk mail volumes is the result of the scrapping of the three items per household per week rule. Again, that's wrong. Royal Mail's latest figures show that the increase in the number of leaflets the company distributes is still surprisingly modest. The average household nowadays gets 2.4 leaflets per week from their postie. Although that's a lot of junk mail it's still below the (now abolished) cap of three items per week.

The art of the Interview

The programme did correctly explain that companies such as Virgin Media send junk mail addressed to 'The Occupier' because the Mailing Preference Service doesn't prevent such mail. They had also found some victims of this loophole; three people who had tried various things to stop Virgin Media junk mail. All had failed, and one person even got more Virgin junk mail after asking the bastards to stop.

And then it was time for Sophie to grill Chris Combemale, the chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association (the junk mail lobby group that runs the Mailing Preference Service).

A still from Watchdog Daily showing presenter Sophie Raworth 'grilling' the chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association.

Sophie started by asking whether or not the Direct Marketing Association agrees that people should be able to stop 'To the Occupier' junk mail. The chief executive responded by stating that people can stop such mail by registering with the Mailing Preference Service and two other opt-out schemes: Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out and the Your Choice Dummy Scheme. And, people could simply contact the sender: if the information systems work correctly companies will almost always suppress your name and address.

It must be the dream of every Watchdog presenter; a chief executive of a junk mail lobby group who desperately tries to disguise the fact that it's impossible to stop 'To the Occupier' junk mail. After all, as the programme had rightly pointed out, it's the Direct Marketing Association that created the 'To the Occupier' loophole. They run the scheme, and thanks to them the Mailing Preference Service will not prevent 'To the Occupier' junk mail. Nor can the junk mail industry's two opt-out schemes for unaddressed junk mail stop addressed 'To the Occupier' junk mail (remember: addressed != unaddressed). And, the victims Watchdog had found had illustrated perfectly that contacting junk mailers like Virgin Media is futile at best and may even result in more junk mail.

And so Sophie went straight for the kill! She interrupted and asked:

But Royal Mail makes an awful lot of money from these letters, doesn't it?.

I swear that's what she asked. She didn't even smile.

What we have learned from watching this programme

There was some happy news. As a result of the Watchdog programme Virgin Media has now removed the address details of the three victims who appeared on the show from its junk mail list. For the first time ever people have managed to stop 'To the Occupier' junk mail from Virgin Media.

Sadly, Sophie didn't say if the rest of the country may now also stop Virgin junk mail. In fact, how normal people are supposed to take on the big household-names and fight for their consumer rights remains completely unclear.

Thanks Watchdog!

Last updated: 
22nd November 2012