|BY MICHAEL GEBERT
THE DIRECT MAIL BIZ PRIDES ITSELF on its time-tested creative rulesthe idea that if your Johnson Box is in the right place and so on, youre practically guaranteed a 2% response.
These rules were worked out in the 30s, 40s and 50s by men like John Caples and Les Wunderman, selling things like magazines and book clubs. However, I think its time to question how well the learning those pioneers gained really applies to the entire field today, particularly if youre working under any of the following conditions:
1. Youre not selling a magazine or a book club.
2. It isnt the 30s, 40s, or 50s.
A 1950s housewife got one piece of direct mail that week. Her 1990s counterpart gets ten pieces of mail (and four AOL disks) a day. She fast-forwards through Nike :30s. What are the odds shes going to read a four-page letter?
In fact, shes gotten quite good at extracting the information she really needs and discarding the rest. She can strip the introductory APR and annual fee from a credit card mailing like a school of piranhas cleaning a carcass.
Shes not impressed by a handwritten note from the president of the company, or even a Post-It signed J. And she notices when a well-known brand name suddenly stoops to cheap tricks. (Or at least I do. I once got a subscription solicitation for Smithsonian, no doubt sold to them on its effectiveness for Gun Nut or Motel Towel Collector, that was so cheesy and deceptive that its clouded their reputation for me ever since. Besides which, Im still waitin for my FREE TV!)
Rules for a creative endeavor? If the century of Picasso, Stravinsky and Monty Python has taught us anything, its that there arent any. Only tactics, which may work brilliantly for a while... but start to lose their effectiveness around the time that everyone around you starts to use them.
Then, like Pablo, Igor or Les before you, you have to stumble around on virgin territory until you find something new of your own. Here are somenot rules, but principles I try to keep in mind, to help me find my way to someplace new. Where everybody else isnt already living... by the rules.
1. Theres a straight line from the mailbox to the trash, and your only hope is to break it. A direct vet once told me, You seem a lot more interested in the concept than the copy. I was about to thank him when I realized it was a criticism. But the body copys where the sale is made, he admonished me. Not when its in an unopened envelope in a landfill it isnt. An arresting outer concept is everything.