Envelope Tips to Combat Anthrax Fears

by Dean Rieck

In late 2001, only days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, America experienced a bizarre anthrax scare. Letters with anthrax spores began showing up in the offices of news media and two Democratic U.S. Senators. Five people died and 17 were infected.

This created a serious issue for direct mailers because millions of Americans were afraid to open envelopes. I wrote this article for DM News to give U.S. mailers advice and inspiration to overcome this unusual problem. I'm posting it here as an example of how copy and design principles are relative to context and are not absolute.

By the time you read this, you probably have received a postcard from the Postmaster General about how to identify and handle suspicious mail. According to the USPS Web site, it's being mailed to "every household in America, every rental Post Office box and all military APO and FPO addresses." This comes on the heels of a warning for all Americans to "wash their hands" after opening mail.

Because of this and massive press coverage on anthrax scares, people are looking at mail more carefully than ever before. And early reports are that response rates are falling. Basically, the mood now is "when in doubt, throw it out."

It's too early to know whether response will bounce back or remain lower for the long term. But it seems prudent to adjust our approach to direct mail design to anticipate and ease the fears and doubts of our customers while this is an issue.

Here are a few ideas to consider:

What's the big message here? Be simple and direct. Avoid the unusual. And make your advertising look like advertising. This is a good time to focus less on tricky techniques and more on good products and strong offers.

No one has experience with what we're going through now. So these suggestions are speculative and subject to change. A single event could instantly negate any or all of these ideas. And no one can predict the long-term effects on particular techniques or on mail advertising as a whole. Only testing will show what will work and what won't now and in the days to come.

But don't panic. Despite current uncertainty, let me assure you that mail is more than a medium. It is part of the American way of life. So if your response has dropped off recently, hang on. Americans are amazingly resilient, brave people. And they LOVE to buy through the mail. So be patient and persistent in your testing.

We will adjust. We will endure. We will prosper.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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