Monday, October 19, 2009

Should junk mail writers be licensed? How about newspaper reporters?

There is a reason for government licensing of certain jobs and professions. You wouldn’t want just anybody to hang out a shingle, claim he’s an MD, and take out your appendix.

You wouldn’t want some unknowledgeable oaf to represent you in court on a capital charge. (Although it sometimes happens with court-appointed lawyers.) Or some amateur architect doing a redesign of your home that ends up accidentally removing a supporting wall.

The rule of thumb is pretty simple. When life, liberty or valuable property is at stake, or when the recipient of services is highly vulnerable to financial loss from fraud, the government has some business licensing who can do what.

But now along comes the Direct Marketing Association (DMA for short). No, they're not a government organization. They’re a private trade organization, and what they want to do is license junk mail writers who write for and have their work reviewed by the sophisticated direct marketers and ad agencies that hire them.

A trade association shakedown

The DMA doesn't actually call it licensing. They call it “certification.” But what it boils down to is trying to force a bunch of hungry free lance writers in effect bribe that noble organization, The Direct Marketing Association, with fees for courses in exchanging for plying their ink stained trade. In effect, it's a shakedown.

The awful news came out in the October issue of Inside Direct Mail, a junk mail business trade paper that unfortunately you cannot access on the Internet unless you pay money or happen to subscribe to the magazine. I get the magazine because (full disclosure) I earn part of my daily bread writing junk mail. I’ve won awards for it, some of them given out by the DMA itself, for the quality and effectiveness of my work. I’ve got a 25 years of experience in the business.

But no matter, if the DMA has its way. I cannot be a member of “an elite group of professionals,” unless I now pay the DMA each year to participate in the DMA’s “Certified Marketing Professional Program.”

This includes written tests and annual follow-up courses. This, among other things, is going to teach me the difference between writing for print, the web and twitter. Wow! As if I’d never written for (or heard of) any of them.

Sounds to me like it’s just a money-grabbing scheme for the DMA, which recently has been so financially hard up that it fired just short of 20 percent of its loyal staff, some of whom had been working there for years.

Evasive answers in techno-jargon

You can tell it’s all techno-baloney by the evasive answers and run-on technobabble used by Jodie Sangster, the DMA’s “Vice president of global compliance.” Whatever the hell that title means. (That’s her in the photograph.)

For example, from a column in Inside Direct mail called (ironically in this case) “Straight Talk,” comes this enlightening information:

Q:What can a direct mail copywriter, for example, learn from such a program?

Sangster: DMA’s vision is one of increasing the intelligence in all networks, as a way to strengthen every channel…[elipses are the magazine’s]…and improve the ability of marketers to integrate any and all in a one-on-one conversation with a customer.

She goes on from there, but I suspect that, like me, you’d prefer a more merciful means of getting put to sleep — perhaps by getting whacked over the head with a two-by-for.

Well, okay, nonsense can be charming, so here are one or two more jargon-filled sentences (some might use a stronger word, such as bullshit) from the Global Compliance ubersturmfuhrer:

We believe today’s multichannel direct marketing process lies close to the heart of the information-based economy we have developed in the U.S. As we leverage the DMA platform across a global market, many will capitalize on the knowledge and experience we have accumulated….”


Can you imagine trying to plow your way through two-pages of nonsense from this genius of prose exposition, who wants the right to grant certification to others to write a sales letter?

But wait, there’s more!

Now it looks as if the Federal Trade Commission wants take the first step toward licensing journalists. They don’t call it that any more than the DMA calls is that when they want you to pay them money for a course before you can write a line on an envelope and a sales letter.

But the FTC has set up a double standard for disclosure — one for bloggers, the other for journalists who write for what’s left of the print press and TV news. And this double standard has teeth that could bleed you dry: teeth like $11,000 fines.

The principle of the First Amendment was that anybody could print anything, so long as it wasn’t libelous or likely to cause a fire or a panic in a crowded theater. But never mind that.

Licensing has always had two purposes. The first is control of others. The second is to generate revenue for the licensor.

That kind of control — and maybe some fees to do some policing — makes sense when it comes to cutting open peoples’ heads and stomachs for medical purposes. It makes no sense at all when it comes to cutting people in our out of the right to report on facts, express opinions or make a living as a writer.


Chris M said...

Junk mail is an obvious target if we want to eliminate waste and reduce carbon emissions. This is a product most people throw out without even reading. It must be banned and leaders at Copenhagen should consider adding this to their international agreements.

The New York Crank said...

My my, Canada Guy, you're certainly off-topic here. I was talking about licensing expression. You're talking about the environment.

But much as I dislike the new Direct Marketing Association's management and direction, I have to consider some questions you've raised, however inappropriately you raised them.

In any society that's past the hunter-gatherer stage, people will want to sell things. How you gonna manage that, Canada Guy? I'm assuming, of course, that you don't want all of us to spend our lives in the forest eating nothing but berries , roots, and animals we've shot with our bows and arrows.

Are we all going to drive to the market place and emit hydrocarbons? Are we gonna fill your e-mail box and mine with spam? How about a constant shower of phone calls at dinner time? Or salesmen pounding on your front door?

Direct mail saves us from other more intrusive forms of selling, and other more eco-hostile forms of buying. Here in the United States, it's also helping to keep the post office alive.

Put that in your pipe and smo...whoops! Sorry. As an environmentally conscious dude you probably don't smoke. Oh well. Stuff it in your mouth and swallow it.

Yours Very Crankily,
The New York Crank