Where Is Your Junk Mail From?

Never worry what others think of you, someone once told me, a piece of advice that never serves me better than when I visit my mailbox.

Like most people, I love getting mail, but if I took my mail seriously I'd be a walking identity crisis. My mail these days is mostly junk, and it's increasingly -- how to say it? -- wrong.

Let me put it this way: somewhere in the bowels of a direct-mail company, there is a person who believes I might -- just might -- be in the market for a $2.6 million farmhouse in Wenham. Someone at another company has mistaken me for a consumer of attractive but low-key beauty products. And two unfortunate catalogue companies have bet the cost of printing and postage that I am a thirtysomething woman with toddlers. Today the indignity was compounded when I received a catalogue from Pottery Barn Kids.

You probably have similar stories. You probably have better stories, maybe a charter subscription to Owl Fanatic magazine. My friend Frances, who is Taiwanese-American, receives solicitations from Jewish fundraisers. Another friend of mine has a boss who got a campaign letter from Ted Kennedy and read it aloud, to great hilarity, in the office. My friend's boss is a prominent Republican congressman, and the letter began: "Dear fellow Democrat."

It couldn't have been less accurate if it had begun "Dear Pope."

Everyone gets junk mail, and laughing at the inappropriate stuff is almost a pastime in modern America. Why do these things arrive? It's not quite random, and figuring out why you're on the owl lovers' mailing list is part of the fun. One day I attended a realtor's open house near my apartment, burning with curiosity to see who in their right minds would buy a $900,000 townhouse in a quiet ex-hippie neighborhood in Cambridge. But I didn't just visit: I also wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, and -- presto! -- I'm on Coldwell Banker's "exceptional properties" mailing list. My friend Frances once bought a ticket to a klezmer concert, which explains why Jewish charities now write her for money. As a favor, I bought my girlfriend a piece of clothing from a catalogue aimed (I guess) at thirtysomething women, and six months later I'm getting catalogues full of well-designed toddler clothes. My girlfriend is now my wife -- I guess the favor worked -- but unfortunately she now thinks I'm trying to send her some kind of message.

Sometimes, of course, I give people information just to fuck with them. I bought a vacuum cleaner and sent the registration card in, checking boxes at random: I am a student, over 70, a military veteran, household income $100,000-plus, never finished high school. Any day now, I'm expecting to be offered a collectible replica Winnebago, cast in gold.

The furious trade in human names is a pillar of modern marketing. Companies sell mailing lists to one another for anywhere from 10 cents to more than a dollar per name, depending on the "quality" of the name -- i.e., how much the company really knows about each person on the list, and how likely that person is to spend a big wad of money. Marketers find this practice economically rational, even though a dime is clearly way too much for the maternity company to have paid for my name. They might as well have copied a listing from the Ulan Bator phone book.

The hotshots of the marketing business make their fortunes coming up with incrementally better ways to target people: figuring out, for instance, that you shouldn't send maternity catalogues to people like me, because those people are male. A hundred Internet business plans bloomed on the basis of collecting vast quantities of data about their users -- remember all those dot-coms whose bright idea was to sell products at a loss? They planned to make money by intimately tracking your tastes and your buying habits, then auctioning that information to the highest bidder.

Privacy advocates got in the way, which is a very good thing: if you think it's alarming to have people draw a picture of you based on one visit to an overpriced Cambridge townhouse, imagine if such a picture were based on what you did on the Internet. ("Dear fellow pedophile . . . ")

Sometimes, though, I like the picture my junk mail paints of me. I buy a shirt from J. Crew or donate money to a museum and detect a slow upward creep in my social standing: suddenly I'm on the radar of upscale clothiers and charities' boards of trustees. Then I buy a wacky gift from Lillian Vernon and detect an abrupt downturn in my fortunes, as people try to sell me personalized bumper stickers, cheap Christmas cards, and those cartoon checks with Bible verses printed in the corner.

The name trade is just a species of inductive reasoning. It's like the blind man feeling an elephant's tail and assuming he's found a rope, or the comic-strip aliens who land on Earth, encounter a coddled house cat, and conclude that they've reached a planet ruled by cats. It's silly at times, and annoying at others, but here's the thing: I wouldn't want it any other way.

Marketing isn't going away -- in fact, it's getting more intrusive and more subtle all the time. Sometimes marketers' guesses may seem like a joke, but they're still informed guesses, meaning that someone who doesn't know you knows at least one specific fact about you. Crude as this seems, it's a lot more sophisticatedly Orwellian than the old-school traveling salesman, whose assumption was simple: you are alive, therefore you want my brushes.

The alternative to this Keystone Kops stuff is, basically, a world in which junk mailers and their online counterparts do know all about us. I recently received a magazine about "marketing in the digital economy" -- actually this was another endearing misdirection, but I ended up reading it out of curiosity -- and saw a whole section dedicated to something called "one-to-one marketing." Marketers envision a world in which they have so much information about us that they can anticipate our needs, providing exactly the offers we want and skipping the stuff we don't. Interactive television holds out the same possibility.

In a way it sounds perfect: the service economy becomes the servant economy. But is this really what we want? Sales pitches insinuating themselves, through every medium, deeper and deeper into the crannies of our minds? I'm reminded of the late Ottoman sultans, living amid a retinue dedicated to their whims, their tastes continually reflected back in the fun-house mirror of a thousand obsequious retainers with their own agendas. The sultans -- and the empire itself -- finally descended into ineffectual dissipation, each leader a warped little island of his own solipsistic perversities.

Just think: the course of history might have been changed by a few misdirected catalogues from Pottery Barn Kids.

Stephen Heuser is the features editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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