Tick boxes

Whenever you give your name and address to a potential junk mailer, for instance when you buy a product or make a donation to a charity, always search the small print for marketing tick boxes. And, be prepared for the trick box.

The basics

I'm sure you know why tick boxes that can prevent 'marketing' are always hidden in the mouse print, and why you need to search for those pesky boxes every time you give your name and contact details to an organisation. If you fail to tick the box correctly you give them permission to target you with adverts. Your details might quickly appear on numerous junk mail lists, and getting all the junk marketing to stop will be next to impossible – after all, you haven't got a clue as to who all those list brokers are.

The only way to stop the rot is by sending individual junk mailers a data protection notice. It's a rather labour-intensive approach but it will work, eventually.

An ounce of prevention…

Few people enjoy reading mouse print. Yet, you should. Being careful who you give your name and address to and being vigilant when confronted with tick boxes is arguably the most effective way of preventing junk mail. It definitely is more effective than signing up to the Mailing Preference Service. In general, you should:

  • Never respond to unsolicited mailings, including appeals from charities. If you shop around you probably find a better deal; and I'm sure you're able to choose your own charities without being prompted to make a donation.
  • Don't take part in competitions and surveys; more often than not they're designed to get hold of your personal details.
  • Understand the lingo. When junk mailers ask your permission for sending you special offers they simply mean advertisements, and when they mention carefully selected partners they're referring to anonymous list brokers.

A word on trick boxes

Please be aware that unscrupulous marketeers will present you with several tick boxes; some of which you may need to tick to opt-out, and some of which you may need to tick to not opt in. When you come across an organisation that uses such trick boxes I'd personally reconsider doing business with them. It's a deeply dishonest way of marketing, and why would you want to go anywhere near an organisation that is trying to deceive you?

Opt-out boxes and the Mailing Preference Service

As mentioned, if you're registered with the Mailing Preference Service and you've (unwittingly) asked an organisation to send you junk mail, you will receive mailings from that organisation. Giving permission to an individual organisation always overrides a registration with the opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail.

The Mailing Preference Service can sometimes prevent junk mail from 'third parties'. If a member of the Direct Marketing Association buys a junk mail list it has to check if the people on the list are registered with the opt-out scheme. Only members of the Direct Marketing Association have to do this; junk mailers that aren't members of the Association can always simply ignore the existence of the opt-out scheme.

A word on other types of unsolicited marketing

The reason why opt-out boxes have spread like a cancer is that the rules for most types of unsolicited marketing are fairly strict. Unsolicited sales calls, text messages and e-mails, for instance, are covered by the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. Without going into too much detail, the Regulations state that – in principle – marketeers can't send you adverts without your prior consent. Although there's no such legislation for addressed junk mail (which is almost entirely self-regulated by the junk mail industry) it has resulted in a culture of small print and t(r)ick boxes.

Opt-out boxes and opt-in boxes

An illustration of tens of floating tick boxes.
To opt out, or to opt in.

There's an easy way to end the t(r)ick box culture: all opt-out boxes could be replaced with opt-in boxes. Currently , it's assumed that you want to receive 'further information' and 'special offers' every time you give your details to an organisation, and the only way to opt out (or not opt in) is by searching the small print for tick boxes. It's an aggressive form of marketing that undermines what could be a good system. (In itself there's nothing wrong with a company asking you if you want to receive adverts – the problem is that most companies try to get people to opt in by hiding opt out boxes and/or using trick boxes.)

Replace opt-out boxes with opt-in boxes and you'll find that suddenly tick boxes are no longer hidden. Which can only be a good thing. Both the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail are always deeply concerned about people making an 'informed decision' about registering with opt-out schemes, so why not show the same concern when it comes to opting in to receiving unsolicited mail? It's interesting to note that the Direct Marketing Association estimates that three in four people always tick opt-out boxes that can prevent junk mail. If the vast majority of people routinely tick opt-out boxes then 'opted out' really ought to be the default option. It would prevent people make an uninformed decision about opting in to receiving advertisements and having their personal details sold by list brokers.

Last updated: 
15th June 2015