What’s the difference between British DM and US DM? Broadly
speaking, US DM is much more ... US. It has the same refreshing candour
as US advertising.
And when it’s less than candid, at least it’s engagingly
Only in the US could they come up with a line like, ’We love golf as
much as you do’, and expect the public to believe it. But that’s what it
says on the front of a wincingly enthusiastic mailer from Dick’s
Clothing & Sporting Goods. Then again, only in the US could an
entrepreneur called Dick name his company after himself, then build it
into a multi-million dollar corporation.
It’s a lack of self-consciousness that characterises the US mail.
They’re completely unfettered by any concept of style. Here’s the deal,
right up front, no messing. If you like it, Jack, sign right here. If
you don’t, well, f**k you, Jack, there’s ten more suckers waiting round
American direct marketers don’t write to you - they write at you. They
learned their trade flogging patent remedies from the back of covered
wagons in the Wild West, and it shows.
We Brits will put ourselves through weeks of agonising and
soul-searching, ensuring that our Lexus mailshot projects the special
ambience of the brand, placing it in precisely the right position
relative to the marque’s competitive set, deftly and subliminally
manipulating the insecurities, inhibitions and barely acknowledged
pretensions of the target.
Meanwhile, ZD Journals of Rochester (graphics software packages) have
downloaded an out-of-focus shot of an unconvincing model of a slimy
green brain, slapped it down on a red background and mailed out a
million with the proposition: ’Upgrade your brain’, in brutal, sans
serif 96-point. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful to the point of hyperactivity,
it pays no heed to ordinary standards of taste and production quality.
But I bet it pulled like a train. Or rather, a brain.
Across the Pond, even posh brands will drop their drawers for a
Can you imagine Amex mailing its British database with a picture of a
vacuum cleaner, and the line: ’So light, so powerful, so versatile. Free
with purchase’? It’s little short of surreal. Have they no pride?
Inside, we’re treated to the print equivalent of an infomercial. The
headline brays: ’For what you pay for a vacuum cleaner, you can have a
vacuum system!’ Close-ups demonstrate the Oreck XL’s dual-row,
helix-pattern, nylon brushes and handy-caddy pocket.
Over here, the Hilton name still carries upmarket connotations. However,
this is not the case in the US, if their ’vacation station’ mailing is
anything to go by. The closest British equivalent would be a Butlins
The design was clearly the work of a dozen different art directors who
have never met. ’When it comes to family fun,’ the headline gushes, ’the
sky’s the limit!’
One big difference between the two markets, of course, is their
Print runs are vast in the US, so unit cost has to be low. Hence, I
suppose, the strange, 50s postcard quality of the shot on Dick’s
It also goes some way to explaining the dreadful paper quality of most
American mail. And the virtual absence of any lasering or
personalisation beyond the address, which looks as if it was produced by
telex. And the cheapo, blob-of-gum sealing mechanism. A proper envelope,
it seems, is a downright luxury. The result: most US mailers look like
our cheapest inserts - the very epitome of junk mail. (Whereas our best
DM feels like above-the-line advertising).
A dubious advantage of the astronomical print run is that DM can be
applied to low-value products like soft drinks. It simply wouldn’t be
economical over here - but we found an elaborate, four-colour roll-fold
mailer for Pepsi, with only a voucher worth 55 cents and the offer of a
branded shopping list to justify its existence.
I’m aware that I’m in danger of damning the entire output of the nation
that invented direct mail. There are some noble exceptions - like a
wonderful mailer for Lexmark printers which uses lenticular printing to
show two images - a grumpy company president and a jovial company
president. ’Even the toughest boss,’ reads the line. Then you tilt the
image, it smiles and the line concludes, ’can be tamed’.
Moreover, the vast proportion of British DM is crap, too. And unlike the
US, we’re crap at producing crap. At least their crap is exuberant,
unpretentious crap that is what it is, love it or hate it. Our crap, on
the other hand, is crap because it’s insipid, unfocused and compromised,
or lacks an idea. Give me theirs anyday.
However, when we’re good, we’re excellent. No US DM agency, for
instance, would or could have produced the Mother’s Day work for
Amnesty. And the Centrepoint ’consequences’ piece, with its overt
reference to pimps and prostitution, would undoubtedly have led to armed
insurrection in the Bible Belt.
So there you have it. The US is DM’s equivalent to Skegness - bleak but
bracing, while Britain is more like Los Angeles - vast tracts of
vulgarity and desolation, relieved only by a few pockets of taste and
Andy Blackford is former creative director at Joshua.