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Direct Mailers Seek to Stamp Out Fears

Commerce: Moves amid anthrax scare include using stronger envelope adhesives, switching to clearly marked letters.

November 01, 2001|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When anthrax became a household word, the company that sends discount coupon Val-Paks to 50 million homes a month began using a stronger adhesive to seal its light-blue envelopes.

Other direct-mail companies steered clear of the talcum powder and cornstarch they had used to dry ink on catalogs and reduce friction in their high-speed mailing machines. And at least one institution, Consumers Union, stopped sending subscription pitches in blank envelopes, a trick marketers long have used to mask their identify.

The anthrax scare is forcing direct mailers, catalog houses and others that rely on the U.S. Postal Service to shift tactics. Some mailers are switching from letters to postcards and e-mail. Others are embracing packaging that is resistant to tampering. And through it all, industry leaders are steadfastly insisting that what many consumers refer to as "junk mail" is not a threat.

"So far, no commercial mail has been involved in the anthrax scare," said H. Robert Wientzen, president and chief executive of the New York-based Direct Marketing Assn. "The likelihood of having a broad-scaled dispersal of anthrax through the use of a large mail campaign appears, from what we can tell, to be very unlikely."

The trade group said the direct-mail industry is rebounding from a noticeable drop in the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It also said the faltering economy, not terrorism, is the biggest challenge facing the industry, one that includes credit card issuers, catalog operators, charitable institutions and other organizations that use the mail to communicate directly with consumers.

But there are signs aplenty that the industry--responsible for 90% of the 208 billion pieces of mail delivered by the postal service last year--is still suffering from effects of the terrorism threat. Direct mailers, whose profit margins shrink when postal rates are increased, are lobbying fiercely to force the federal government to absorb anthrax-related costs that Postmaster General John Potter said could total billions of dollars. And related businesses, such as envelope makers, said they are feeling pain from the lapse in direct marketing.

"A great number of direct mailings were canceled and advertising was pulled back" after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, said Maynard H. Benjamin, president of the Envelope Manufacturers Assn. "In the last week, we have seen a very slow improvement."

The envelope industry trade group had projected a 2% decrease in 2001 revenue, but the projection was increased to a 4% drop after the attacks, Benjamin said.

There's no evidence that credit card applications, time-share offers, dry-cleaning coupons and magazine subscription mailings pose a threat to the public. But mass mailers said they're investigating ways to make their mailings safer.

Envelope manufacturers are experimenting with stronger adhesives that create airtight packages. They're also making envelopes and packaging that incorporates red type underneath sealing flaps that could alert consumers to possible tampering.

High-tech solutions also are in the offing, both at the Postal Service and at individual companies.

"I see a time in the near future when you have paper that will detect any kind of contamination," Benjamin said. "You'll see paper that is doped with a biosensitive material that, if it comes into contact with any contamination, it would glow."

Mailing practices are being modified. Some firms are using glossy postcards, rather than letters sent in envelopes, to communicate with customers. Catalog operators are using e-mail to alert consumers when catalogs and packages are in the mail. Direct mailers also are rethinking the practice of sending mass mailings--including the never-ending wave of credit card offers--in plain, unmarked envelopes.

The plain white envelopes are designed to entice consumers to open envelopes that they might toss if they knew it was a home-mortgage loan pitch or another magazine subscription offer. Consumers Union had just completed a 50,000-letter mailing using unmarked envelopes when the first anthrax cases surfaced.

"Generally, our mail is very clearly identified. We even print a picture of our test research center on envelopes," said Joel Gurin, an executive vice president with Consumers Union. Gurin added that the organization has no plans to again mail subscription solicitations in plain envelopes.

Consumer concern over public safety clearly has grown with the anthrax incidents that have killed four people and infected more than dozen others in Eastern states and in Washington, D.C.

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