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How the 25bn-myth has finally been exposed for what it is

27th February 2013

Here's what Chris Combemale, executive director of the Direct Marketing Association, told BBC Panorama in 2011:

It's what the junk mail lobby group tells the media every time junk mail comes under attack. On the day Panorama investigated the junk mail industry Mr Combemale said he hoped the programme would provide a balanced view of the arguments. To help journalists understand the issue his organisation paid a PR agency to come up with a fact sheet that explained that the £16 billion generated in sales is a massive contribution to UK plc [sic] at a time when high street retailers are suffering.

It's what won the Direct Marketing Association a Crisis and Issues Management Award in 2011.

It's what they tell Defra. And Defra believes the figure of £16 billion is correct. (In 2010, I asked the Defra policy advisor who deals with junk mail – they dutifully call it direct mail – whether or not he's confident that the industry's research is sound. He said he has no reason to doubt any of the industry's figures).

And, until today it's was what they told you, when you visited the website of the Mailing Preference Service. In fact, people signing up to the opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail got an even more incredible figure:

UK consumers generate over £25 billion of postal sales per year.

But today all that has changed. If you now visit the Mailing Preference Service you're welcomed with this message:

"UK consumers generate millions of pounds of postal sales per year."

What caused the drop from £25 billion to millions was a complaint lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority. Initially, the advertising watchdog didn't want to deal with the complaint. They said it was up to the complainant (it wasn't me!) to prove that the statement was false – and not up to the Direct Marketing Association to prove the statement was true. That decision was overturned in an appeal, and when they finally asked the Direct Marketing Association to substantiate the figure of £25 billion the junk mailers had to admit that they didn't have the specific figures to hand.

Interesting, isn't it? For years they've been contacting journalists to give them facts and figures, so that they in turn can provide the public with a balanced view of the arguments. They're sending out tens of thousands of leaflets to local authorities to ensure local councils don't get any funny ideas about sharing the cost of disposing of junk mail. They insist that people wanting to cut back on junk mail should consider the damage they're doing to the UK economy. But when they're asked to substantiate its facts and figures they don't have them to hand.

I guess this implies that Mr Combemale still maintains that the facts and figures are scientifically sound. He has merely mislaid them; they're probably in amongst a pile of direct mail somewhere on his desk. It's unlikely, therefore, that he will be phoning Panorama to say that he gave them a figure he can't substantiate. Nor do I think he will let Defra know that he lost his research into the blessing that is advertising mail. And he will surely not return the PR Crisis Management Award. All will be business as usual.

It will be interesting, though, to see what he will tell journalists next time junk mail makes headlines. Even more interesting will be to see if journalists will finally dare to question the junk mail industry's facts and figures. That's something Panorama didn't have enough courage for.

Post scriptum

Yes, I did rip the Panorama broadcast from the iPlayer. But no, I didn't do so illegally. I spent quite a few days with the producer of the Panorama episode in May 2011 and got permission to use both bits of the final broadcast as well as lots of footage that wasn't used for the programme.

Last updated: 
27th February 2013