Opt-out schemes for unaddressed junk mail are failing and should be replaced by a straightforward sticker system, according to Stop Junk Mail.
For the first time ever the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has revealed how many households in the UK are currently signed up to opt-out schemes for unaddressed junk mail. The statistics were somewhat hidden away in the DMA's 'industry performance report', which the representative of the junk mail industry has compiled for Defra. The figures show that both Royal Mail's Door-to-Door Opt-Out and the DMA's Your Choice Preference Scheme for Unaddressed Mail are hardly being used by the public. In April 2009 just over 0.7 per cent of UK households was registered with the Door-to-Door Opt-Out to stop leaflets delivered by the postman. The number of households signed up to the Your Choice scheme in 2009 was a meagre 1,600, or 0.006 per cent of all UK households. In comparison, over 4.5m people are currently registered with the Mailing Preference Service, the DMA's opt-out scheme for addressed junk mail.
Stop Junk Mail has for a long time argued that both opt-out schemes are ineffective and customer-unfriendly. The schemes are not being promoted; it is not possible to register online; and householders requesting an opt-out form are being warned by Royal Mail and the DMA that they may miss "important information" if they decide to opt out (see also More about the Door-to-Door Opt-Out / Your Choice below).
It is unlikely that Defra, with whom the DMA signed a 'voluntary producer responsibility agreement' in 2003, will be all too pleased with the performance of the opt-out schemes. It was Defra that ordered the DMA to set up the Your Choice opt-out scheme with the aim of making it easy for the public to stop unwanted leaflets. Clearly, Your Choice has failed to achieve this goal by a very, very large margin.
In the past we have suggested various improvements for the Door-to-Door Opt-Out and Your Choice. The two opt-out schemes could be merged, so that householders no longer have to contact two separate schemes. Royal Mail could via its door-to-door service advertise the existence of its opt-out scheme to each and every household in the country. There is no reason why people shouldn't be able to register with the opt-out schemes online. Royal Mail and Your Choice could stop discouraging people to sign up to opt-out schemes by giving clear information about the implications of opting out. The opt-out schemes could be run by an independent organisation that does not represent the particular interests of the junk mail industry. The list could go on.
A more important question is: should there be opt-out schemes for unaddressed mail in the first place? The UK is unique in asking people wanting to stop unsolicited leaflets to register with opt-out schemes. On mainland Europe and in countries such as Canada and Australia all (commercial) unaddressed mail can be stopped by displaying a 'No Junk Mail' sign. A particularly interesting example is the Netherlands, where householders can get a free letterbox sticker to stop free newspapers and/or (commercial) leaflets and where people can complain to an Ombudsman if their sticker is being ignored (something which rarely happens). The scheme, which was set up by Friends of the Earth and the Dutch junk mail industry has ensured that householders have an easy way of saying 'no' to unwanted advertisements and has given the industry a way of targeting unaddressed mail in a more effective way.
What the DMA's figures show is that stopping unsolicited and unaddressed leaflets is currently far too complicated. Rather than trying to make some improvements aimed at increasing opt-out rates Defra and the junk mail industry should be looking at alternatives that do give people and easy and effective way of saying 'no thank you'.
More about the Door-to-Door Opt-Out
Royal Mail had so far refused to publish information about the number of households signed up to its opt-out scheme for unaddressed junk mail but in 2008 the company accidentally told Stop Junk Mail that the figure was "less than 0.5 per cent". Royal Mail's decision to make the information public comes after the Independent and BBC News recently reported that less than 1 per cent of UK households are believed to be opted out.
The Door-to-Door Opt-Out is the most effective junk mail opt-out scheme; signing up to the scheme will prevent more junk mail than the Mailing Preference Service and Your Choice combined. That few people register with the scheme is largely because the existence of the scheme is not being advertised by Royal Mail and because many householders are worried about the consequences of opting out. The Door-to-Door Opt-Out Form warns householders that they may miss information from local and national Government if they decide to register with the scheme. Although this policy has been dismissed as "scare tactics" by PostWatch it seems to be effective; the DMA's 'performance report' states that about 50 per cent of householders asking Royal Mail for an opt-out form decide not to sign up because they are worried about the implications of opting out.
More about the Your Choice Preference Scheme for Unaddressed Mail
The Your Choice preference scheme was introduced in 2008 as a result of the Government's Waste Strategy White Paper. One of the major shortcomings of the scheme is that it is unclear how much junk mail the scheme will prevent. Householders cannot tell if a particular leaflet was delivered by a member of the DMA and will therefore never be able to judge if signing up to the scheme is at all effective. At the same time the Your Choice opt-out pack warns people that much of the materials delivered by members of the DMA constitutes "important information". Although the DMA has not commented on the extremely low take-up of the Your Choice scheme, it seems clear that few householders believe signing up to the scheme will do much good.
The Your Choice scheme is hardly being advertised by the DMA. Between the launch of the scheme in early 2008 and December 2009 exactly 4,500 householders requested a Your Choice opt-out pack via Stop Junk Mail's Junk Buster application. This indicated that most householders find out about the existence of the Your Choice scheme via Stop Junk Mail and that a large percentage of householders who contact the scheme is put off by DMA warnings about the consequences of opting out of receiving unaddressed mail.