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.

Worst. Letter. Ever.

The other day, I ran into a friend who asked me how he and his wife could market their small business better in our shaky times. That’s a topic for many days, of course, but he wanted to know specifically about the value of a letter. I could have said that there are some big pluses and minuses for mailing a letter package, depending on the industry and target audience. Entire books, seminars, and much more are devoted to the art of writing a great sales letter. At the time, though, all I could think of was what not to do.

The other day, I ran into a friend who asked me how he and his wife could market their small business better in our shaky times. That’s a topic for many days, of course, but he wanted to know specifically about the value of a letter. I could have said that there are some big pluses and minuses for mailing a letter package, depending on the industry and target audience. Entire books, seminars, and much more are devoted to the art of writing a great sales letter. At the time, though, all I could think of was what not to do.

I flashed back to what I regarded as the worst letter I had ever read when it first landed on my desk in 1999. It’s from American Appliance, a chain of retail stores in the Mid-Atlantic states that, not surprisingly, went bankrupt in 2001. You can see it in the mediaplayer at the right. From the top, literally, something bothered me: There was no salutation. How can you have a letter without one? It just got worse from there:

  • misspellings (“Veterans Day” is the official holiday name),
  • bad grammar (e.g., “there” and “Audio products”), and
  • dicey usage of a trademarked name (American Airlines owns “AAdvantage”).

Looking at it today, it hasn’t gotten better with age.

I’ll admit it — I’m a stickler, but when I see mistakes like this in direct mail and email, I’m not overly worried about it being the result of bad education. At least that can be remedied a little bit by taking a one-day workshop, or at least, reading Lynne Truss’ “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” What’s more bottom-line is that this letter should never have been dropped in the mail in the first place. Someone along the line — a marketing director or an administrative assistant — should have sent this clunker back to be fixed. But no one did. There is no excuse for not thoroughly reviewing all materials for basic rules of the English language before they are deployed in the mail, on the Internet, or wherever. Carelessness, and a less-than-professional look gets noticed, and loses business, deservedly so.

What’s the worst marketing letter you’ve ever read?