3 Easy Takeaways From the Worst Direct Mail Ever

You can learn quite a bit by studying the best examples of direct mail. But can you learn something from studying the worst direct mail?

I always advise customers who use Who’s Mailing What! to check out controls, especially the Grand Controls (those in the mail for three years or more). They represent the best techniques, formats, creative and copywriting.

But every once in a while, I think about the worst mail I’ve ever seen.

You can learn quite a bit by studying the best examples of direct mail. But can you learn something from studying the worst direct mail?

This is a question that’s been running through my head lately.

I always advise customers who use Who’s Mailing What! to check out controls, especially the Grand Controls (those in the mail for three years or more). They represent the best techniques, formats, creative and copywriting.

But every once in a while, I think about the worst mail I’ve ever seen. And, I don’t mean mail that just never gets opened.

I’m not talking about bad Photoshop work, or self-mailers that tear because of too much glue, or misdirected mail you get from poor list work. I’m not even talking about charity scams, which never seem to go away.

I am talking about mail that gets something really, really wrong. Here are a few examples, and what can be learned from them.

1. Be More Subtle
Behold, my personal choice as the second worst mailing ever.

NHBC_01This “biz opp” brochure for something called the “Fast Cash CD-ROM System” really made my eyes hurt after about 30 seconds of reading it.

What a mess, right?

Lots and lots of underlining, stacks of money, all caps, full dollar amounts, the magic word “FREE” … it’s 16 pages of everything and the kitchen sink when it comes to direct mail graphic elements.

I’ve never run across anything as extreme as this mailer, but then, what could possibly top it? Designers, take it easy. If everything is important, then nothing is.

2. Hire A Good Copywriter
Or at least someone who can proofread well.

AmApp1This is a letter that was mailed by the defunct retail chain American Appliance, and is a perfect example of bad grammar, among many other sins.

I once wrote that this was the worst letter I ever read, and I stand by that assessment.

11 thoughts on “3 Easy Takeaways From the Worst Direct Mail Ever”

  1. Some years ago, I received a postcard from a new advertising/marketing agency that was opening in my (small) home town. The purpose of the postcard was to invite me, as a local business owner, to attend their grand opening reception at their offices. The postcard made much of the fact their offices were located in a renovated historical building and decorated with locally-produced artwork. It didn’t go in to so much detail when it came to their marketing credentials, though. When I had already found two spelling errors and a grammatical mistake before finishing the first sentence, I decided perhaps this agency lacked the attention to detail I was seeking. I did not attend the open house, and I did not do any business with the agency. Aside from one article about their grand opening in the local paper, I don’t recall ever hearing anything further about them.

    1. Good for you! You only get one chance at a first impression. There is no excuse for simple mistakes, and focusing on yourself instead of what you can do for customers just makes it worst.

  2. My current vote for WORST are the “Let us bury you at sea” mailers you get when you cruise past age 60 or so. I can be sitting there, finally get the mail, and bam, someone wants to throw my remains in the ocean for a bunch of Benjamins.. What a buzzkill.

    1. Stan Winston, who was ECD at Ogilvy Direct for years, once wrote an article titled ‘Death By Database’ describing how your mailbox changes once you hit 60. One of the funniest things I ever read. My vote for worst letter ever would be the one I received from a hearing aid company a year or so ago that began with words to the effect of: “Now that you’re old, your hearing is probably failing….” Very similar to yours. Maybe it’s to be expected when young copywriters write to seniors.

        1. Found it in my archive! It was published in January 1989 in DM magazine and actually was titled The Perfect Crime. It talked about becoming 50, not 60. But 60 is the new 50, isn’t it? I scanned and attached it.

          1. WOW. Thanks for sharing this! This reminds me of a presentation by NY Life’s Christina Blanco at the National Postal Forum last month, and how different generations have different communications preferences. Being in Gen X, I’m personally hoping that 80 is the new 50.

          2. Sorry to tell you, Paul, but 60 is the same ol’ 60 it’s always been and always will be. Us baby boomers are just practicing self-delusion when we think otherwise. As a generation, we are pretty good at that. 🙂

  3. For me, the worst direct mail ever comes to our home addressed to my husband’s ex-wife. Old database? Not an excuse this time. They were divorced nearly 10 years ago, and she’s never lived in this house. Nor has she even lived in this state. And yet, it keeps coming . . .

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