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Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece

Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece

I got this direct mail piece the other day, and was kind of appalled at how sneaky it was.


Mind you, I love creative direct mails. It’s a tough market, and if you have something to sell, you need to be creative.

This one, though? A DVD in a nice case, a “yours to keep!” so-called collectible coin (golly, for me?), two separate return envelopes, and a confusing set of instructions.

Picture it: I just came home from a long day, am tired, just want to flip through my mail and start thinking about what to do for supper, and instead I’m trying to figure out why these people are sending me a DVD I didn’t order.

First, I had to find the letter. This long sheet of paper has a return envelope and instructions on the outside, with this letter folded onto the inside … but since it was behind/inside/attached to the envelope, it took me at least two passes through the pieces in the envelope to find the thing.


The letter starts off, “You must be wondering why you’ve received the enclosed DVD, entitled ‘How the Earth was Made.’ the reason is simple, please let me explain…”  Well, they got that part right because that was exactly what I was wondering.

It then goes into a lengthy explanation about how the Smithsonian Institution is creating a “landmark” collection of DVDs and how I am so, so lucky to be given the chance to “see, hear, feel and appreciate what the Chronicles Series is all about.”  It explains how I can “keep it with no obligation as a gift.” Okay, fine, whatever. I’ve subscribed to Smithsonian Magazine since the 1980s so I am legitimately on their mailing list. I’ve gotten Very Special Offers from them before, just … never one like this.

Because here’s what bugs me. Well, really, there are several things, but this is the big one.


I’ve read this thing several times, and I still swear it’s contradicting itself.

It says:

If you don’t wish to participate in the series you may return the DVD along with your Member Reply Form in the white postage-paid Merchandise Return Envelope attached to this letter… Because you didn’t ask for this special DVD, you don’t have to participate or send it back and you can consider it a gift.”

Um, call me crazy, but why are they both asking me to send back the unwanted DVD and also telling me that I can keep it? If I’m supposed to feel empowered by having all these options, it’s not working. I just feel confused. Am I particularly slow today? Am I lightheaded from hunger because I’m still trying to get past the pile of mail and to the kitchen?


The actual order form doesn’t help. It’s got two check boxes, one for “Yes, please, sign me up” one for “No, I’m returning the DVD, please don’t send any more,” AND then there’s small print telling me I can just keep it without participating. Huh?

Now, as a consumer, I’m not only confused at this point, but I’m frustrated. Confused, frustrated, hungry, and getting annoyed.

Seriously–it’s a direct mail piece, something I did not request, so legally I am under no obligation … so why are they (1) making it so complicated and (2) making a big deal about how I should return the DVD if I don’t want it and yet still decide to return it (as opposed to not wanting it and just throwing it away)?

You think I’m kidding?


Talk about labor-intensive. If I am feeling so inclined as to return this lovely little DVD I never asked to be saddled with, I’ve got this cute little pictogram explanation of exactly what I am required to do to return it. 1. Detach the envelope, 2. remove the DVD from its case, and 3. mail it back–but it comes with the warning that, “Due to postal changes DO NOT return the plastic DVD case. You may keep, recycle, or discard it.” (Well, that’s lucky.)

How is putting your Business-Reply permit limitations on the consumer a good idea? Some people love nothing better than wasting as much of that as possible–they stuff BREs with cardboard, send back blank blow-in cards, anything they can think of because they’re so frustrated with direct mails and subscription cards. If I were that kind of person, telling me that you–who have already made me confused and frustrated–will get in trouble if I send back the entire case is frankly just asking for trouble.

But, let’s go back to that whole Do I or Do I Not Return the DVD issue which I’m STILL not clear on. What on God’s green earth does my sending back the unwanted DVD in a paper envelope do for any of us? You can say what you want about the post office, but that thing is going to get stomped on. It’s not like it’s going to return intact. In fact, the Smithsonian is going to end up paying fairly substantial return-mail postage for me to send back a DVD that I didn’t ask for and that they’re going to have to just toss in the garbage.

As I see it, there should be THREE possiblities at this point–1. Yes, I love this video, enroll me, and keep them coming. 2. I didn’t like this particular DVD, and am returning it, but would like to see more, or 3. Who are you and why are you bothering me, this is all garbage.

Except, none of the verbiage in the letter or on the order form acknowledges option #2 at all–which, to my mind, is the only reason you would WANT someone to send back the DVD if they’re not interested.

Believe me, the cheap “Collector’s Series” collectible coin with the picture of the Smithsonian castle is NOT enough to counter-balance the things wrong with this direct mail.

No matter how wonderful the DVD is … I haven’t watched it, and don’t really plan to … the Smithsonian just spent a small fortune to assemble and mail this crappy direct mail. There’s the special, outer envelope, the DVD in its snazzy case, a non-postage-paid return envelope, a postage-paid return envelope, (and, why two envelopes?) an insert reiterating the instructions for returning the DVD that I apparently don’t need to return at all, the letter, the order form, plus the coin. That’s a lot of stuff to get into one envelope, and not really light on the postage, either. Not to mention that the letter/order form/BRE combination was likely a custom paper order.

And, after putting all this money into the direct mail, they end up with a presentation that’s confusing and complicated … I’m still waiting for a reason as to why I should bother sending the DVD back at all. The letter with an explanation was buried, folded in amongst all the other things, so that I was already frustrated by the time I found it.

Folks, here are some of the things you need to remember about direct mails.

  • Get people to open the envelope–which this one, I admit, did
  • Keep things simple. Don’t make your potential customers hunt for what you want them to do.
  • Give them as much information as you want, but make it accessible.
  • For heaven’s sake, don’t give out mixed signals. If you want the DVD back, say so, but don’t tell me that I CAN send it back but that I can also keep it for no obligation. Which one am I supposed to do so that I can sleep at night?
  • Remember that customers–much as we love them–can be stupid. If you make things too complicated for them, they get upset, like a 4-year old trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Bonus gifts are nice and catchy–the “collector’s coin” idea had potential, but the actual coin is kind of cheesy. That can still be okay, if it’s a one-shot, get-attention deal. Then you could just give it to your child to play Bank with, but no, the sales letter makes a point of telling me that I’ll get more coins with the other videos, “until my coin collection is complete.” Gee, there’s incentive, because I really want more of these things.
  • Don’t make people WORK for what you want them to do. The harder you make it to respond to your mailing, the fewer people are going to respond. Consumers may enjoy actively checking off their preferences in boxes and sticking stickers on the right form, but make it clear! Make it fun! Don’t make it feel like work.

Oh yes, and why did I call this sneaky at the beginning? Because, since the instructions are unclear, and the proper response if you don’t want it is perplexing, my guess is that some people are going to get this mailing, with the DVD right there in their hand, and just pay the $12.95 because they don’t want to get into trouble. Not something you’d expect from a classy organization like the Smithsonian Museum.

But then, there’s more small print to this mailing, saying “This program is being administered under a licensing arrangement by TN Marketing LLC, a for-profit company.” Maybe I’m not the only one to question their practices, and perhaps the Smithsonian should have done some more research?

18 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece

  1. Kelvin Kao

    That is confusing. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that they intentionally make it confusing. And also they want to give you gifts to make you feel obligated to do something, must like a stalker-ish guy showering a girl with expensive presents.

    But for the most part, I just think they are not doing a good job communicating.
    .-= Kelvin Kao´s last blog ..Twitter =-.

  2. Brad Shorr

    Hi, My reaction was much like Kelvin’s. Maybe the Smithsonian crowd is too smart for their own good. They’ve over thought this project. Even if they succeed in manipulating 2% or whatever into signing up, they will have alienated 50% of their mailing list base in the process – as evidenced by this blog post.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..Discover Your Strategic Self on FarmVille =-.

  3. --Deb

    The interesting thing is that, when I did a quick Google search on the name of the marketing company? Came up with a Better Business Bureau complaint about this basic mailing for some other company’s DVDs. I’m not the only one who was not impressed! Though I really do wonder why the Smithsonian, of all people, needed an outside marketing company of such (apparently) ill repute?
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece =-.

  4. tuxgirl

    it’s technically illegal for them to claim that you *have* to return an item that was mailed to you without your request. that’s why they keep having the small print mentioning that you don’t have to return the dvd. apparently, they don’t really want you to keep the dvd without signing up, though, so they are trying to encourage you to return it.

    underhanded practice, and i’d be pretty frustrated with them too.

    sometimes i wonder whether some spam i get is from the company it claims to be from or if it’s actually from that company’s competitors. (i used to wonder the same thing about pop-up ads on the internet, too)

  5. --Deb

    Interesting idea, about it being sent by a competitor … though, in this case, since, it’s hard to imagine, what with the DVD and the fancy collector’s coin (grin). I’m pretty sure there are laws about misrepresentation, in cases like this, though.
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece =-.

  6. tuxgirl

    🙂 I just dont understand why any company would use certain tactics in their advertising, i guess. back when pop-ups were common, i decided that i would never buy anything from any company that advertised in pop-ups. the ads gave me a bad taste in my mouth.

  7. Mary Brown

    I think the idea that it’s not from the Smithsonian is the most likely, but I doubt it is a competitor purposely trying to give the Smithsonian a bad name. More likely it is a company using the Smithsonian name for credibility, and probably not with Smithsonian’s knowledge or sanction at all.
    Totally frustrating. I hope you have recovered from this outrageous treatment, had a nice dinner and even got a great blog out of it!

  8. --Deb

    I don’t think using the Smithsonian name to launch a DVD-mailing scheme would be legal? Though, when I did a google search for the actual DVD, I couldn’t find a link anywhere. Hmm!

    And, yes, at least I got a good blog post out of it (grin)
    .-= –Deb´s last blog ..Anatomy of a Direct Mail Piece =-.

  9. Melissa Donovan

    I think this is a good example of the times in which we all find ourselves living. Many businesses (especially big businesses) no longer strive to offer a valuable, beneficial product or service at a fair rate. The new model is to find creative ways to make as much money as you can off the consumer while selling them as little as possible (preferably nothing — i.e. “snake oil”). This often involves creating a lot of confusion in the consumer’s mind about what, exactly, they are paying for. Problem is, these marketing tactics often work because they pander to the lowest common denominator. I just see them as scams. And I find it troubling that an organization like the Smithsonian is using this strategy.

  10. --Deb

    Well, apparently the marketing company has a B- score from the Better Business Bureau: “The BBB has received complaints concerning the marketing practices of Ultimate Racing and their solicitation. This company mails a free DVD to consumers to see if they are interested in joining the NASCAR Ultimate DVD Collection. The company states to preview the DVD risk free and consumers are under no obligations to return or pay for the DVD. If consumers do not want to join the program, they may keep the DVD free according to the company.
    Consumers have stated they do not like this company’s solicitation practices and ask to have their personal information removed from Ultimate Racing files. The company has responded to and resolved all complaints.”

    I really am starting to wonder if the Smithsonian actually IS involved in this mailing?

  11. Mary Brown

    Why don’t you ask them?
    Regarding your earlier comment about the legality, since when does legality stop everyone from doing something? It is unfortunately another sign of the times we are living in that some people and businesses don’t see integrity as a desirable trait or prerequisite for doing business. They are out to make a fast buck, only. They’re OK with doing something illegal, and they keep the money until they get caught and shut down. Then they do it again with a new name or angle. As long as they can keep the money (or even a big enough chunk of it) and aren’t put away forever, there’s enough incentive to keep doing it.
    Fortunately, most people aren’t like that, yet, even here.

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  14. Carey Folk


    I know this thread is a bit old but I am in the middle of a TN Marketing deal right now. I received the same thing you did – only my DVD was called “Lessons of Faith – Jesus and His Times.”

    What they are doing is legal but deceptive. It’s a numbers game and they obviously come out on top or they wouldn’t still be in business.

    I have filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (they are a member and have had several complaints against them – but most are resolved).

    I asked for 3 things:
    1) Cease selling the DVD’s unsolicited in a deceptive manner, and
    2) Provide me with where they obtained my name and address, and
    3) An apology from the owner/CEO.

    I got a form letter back, acknowledging none of the above that said they are removing my name from their mailing list.

    The BBB sent me an email asking if resolved. I just emailed back to say no. I did say that the company could do 1 thing that would trump all my others requests – they could add a 3rd option on that REPLY FORM that states 3) since you didn’t request this DVD, you may keep it as a gift.

    That is much clearer to me. We’ll see what I get back. Please respond to this if you are interesting in hearing what happens.

    Thanks so much.

  15. Carey Folk

    One last thing – I tracked down the producer of the DVD. http://www.questar1.com

    They actually have a lot of nice products and sell directly online. Why would they license to a distributor that uses deceptive practices? Money I guess.

    I sent a complaint the Questar via their website. Never heard back from them.