Campaign Report on Creative DM: Them and us - UK DM has pockets of excellence but it can’t rival US direct mail for brash exuberance

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.

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

the corner.

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.


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