EDITORIAL: DM must stand up to mail mavericks

The huge upsurge in consumer complaints about direct mail - they rose by more than 50 per cent last year - is deeply worrying, particularly for a sector which has worked steadily and successfully to clean up its act.

The volume of direct mail has flourished as cash-strapped clients have shunned above-the-line campaigns in favour of what they deem a more cost-effective direct approach. Complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority were bound to rise simply because so much more direct mail is tumbling through letterboxes.

More serious, though, is the potential to subvert the UK system from foreign mavericks such as Health Laboratories of North America, whose outrageous claims for its Berry Trim Plus slimming pill earned its mailshot the dubious title of 2001's most complained about ad.

The ASA, not normally given to such forthright language, condemned it as "one of the most flagrant and deceitful breaches of the codes ever seen". Health Laboratories of North America personifies the serious threat being posed to the UK direct marketing sector by unscrupulous foreign companies unfettered by the self-regulatory system or data protection laws.

Last year the ASA ran a random check on mailshots being targeted at the UK, some of them posted from locations as remote as the Phillippines.

Every one of them broke British advertising rules. What's more, ASA executives have noticed that anybody responding to an offer from one of these mailshots merely opens the floodgates. Its concern is the effect of this on some of the community's most vulnerable members, such as pensioners.

For direct marketing as a whole, though, the foreign onslaught may have even graver repercussions. Consumers make no distinction between mailshots sent to them from Andover or Amsterdam. How soon before they begin tarring the entire sector with the same brush?

So what can be done? Greater co-operation between national regulatory authorities is essential but becomes more difficult when the culprit may be operating out of a back room in Manila. Also, the Direct Marketing Association must keep up its good work. Maybe the Royal Mail, whose powers of sanction are limited (and will be even more so as the postal service deregulates) needs to talk to the Government about having limited powers to open mail. Maybe the Government also needs to reconsider its proposal to no longer allow electoral lists to be used for commercial purposes.

In times like this the direct marketing industry needs all the help it can get to keep its targeting accurate and its reputation intact.